Circular clothing from kombucha

Case

Circular clothing from kombucha

Idea Generator makes exciting research possible

Can you make circular clothing from fermented tea? You won’t easily get a standard grant for such a research question, but you can gain funding via the NWA Idea Generator. Also thanks to the Idea Generator, PhD research into the stabilisation of the energy network could start and a study into the photos of a Dutch explorer could be realised.

People dressed in circular clothingPhotographer: Maarten Nauw

Normally, biophysicist Raoul Frese (VU Amsterdam) works on photosynthesis in plants, but with this latest study he ended up in a “Queer Fashion Show” with hip-swaying models on the catwalk in clothing produced from cellulose that came from kombucha – fermented tea. How did he make this striking sidestep? Via Hybrid Forms, the “arts and science” lab of the Faculty of Science. ‘Scientific developments in biotechnology sometimes require interaction with other disciplines,’ says Frese. ‘Hybrid Forms involves artists in this: with their broad perspective, they can unleash new possibilities.’

This sounds very artistic, but the background is serious science. For years, physicists have been investigating multi-purpose materials, for example for the space organisation ESA. Kombucha is one such example. You can drink it, but you can also extract bacterial cellulose from it. And that can be useful for an astronaut too. The cellulose contains yeast that can be used for food preparation, but you can also use it as a regenerative nutrient medium for the ultrafast culturing of plants and algae.

Did you know? But you can certainly throw away biocellulose underwear with the organic waste because it quickly decomposes back into the raw material. So it is both handy and sustainable.

When dried over a longer period of time, the cellulose changes into a sort of leather. ‘That gave co-applicant and student Iza Awad the idea of producing clothes from it,’ says Frese. ‘Such a hybrid subject, outside of the traditional scientific frameworks, is highly suitable for the Idea Generator.’ In this programme, the Dutch Research Agenda (NWA) awards grants to investigate the feasibility of out-of-the-box ideas

It gave the biophysicists in Amsterdam the opportunity for design in collaboration with design studio Samira Boon. That yielded an internal wall system made of biocellulose that can purify air – another quality of kombucha – but also light and breezy summer fashion. Can you steal the show in it when you go out for the night? That’s a matter of taste. But you can certainly throw away biocellulose underwear with the organic waste because it quickly decomposes back into the raw material. So it is both handy and sustainable.

Pumping when the wind blows

Sustainability also plays a key role in the research of Ties van der Heijden from TU Delft. Energy is increasingly generated with solar panels and wind turbines, but that has a destabilising effect on the electricity network. During a windless night, no electricity is generated, whereas during storms and abundant sunshine, everything buzzes and there is insufficient storage capacity. Does that mean households and companies can only use electricity if enough is available? Unfortunately, we cannot be that flexible. However, the pumps of the Dutch water system are, Van der Heijden realised. In the Netherlands, we must constantly pump water from canals and storage basins towards rivers and the sea to keep our feet dry. However, that does not need to be done every minute of the day. You can easily wait until a lot of electricity is generated and the electricity price is low or even negative. ‘Pumping when the wind blows,’ is how Van der Heijden summarises his idea. ‘That way, you ensure a balance between electricity supply and demand.’

The TU Delft students worked out that the combined Dutch pumping capacity is no less than 221 MW. If you let those pumps work when the electricity price is at its lowest, that can save up to 43% on the annual cost. This does not require major investments, only a new control system so that the pumps can respond smartly.

The solution of “pumping when the wind blows” effectively brings us back to the system that kept our country dry for centuries, but now indirectly, with sustainable electricity. That is far smarter, because if there is a threat of flooding, you can then also use the pumps when there is no wind. The research is relevant to society because we are in the middle of an energy transition.

Aerial view of the locks of IJmuiden with the pumping station and the discharge sluice to the left of the centerAerial view of the locks of IJmuiden with the pumping station and the discharge sluice to the left of the center

In his prize-winning master’s thesis, Van der Heijden demonstrated that his idea would work superbly in the pumping station at IJmuiden. But could the entire Dutch pumping system work in this way? That is a superb question for a PhD study, but how do you fund that? The Idea Generator provided an outcome. ‘Its budget can be used quite freely. Therefore, with the Idea Generator, the NWA funded the first year of my PhD research,’ says Van der Heijden. ‘The grant bought us a year to come up with the rest of the funding.’

The NWA stamp of approval helped him to obtain funding from Rijkswaterstaat, TKI Water Technology and several water boards for the remainder of the research.

Dr. Julien with female adult Efé pygmynegative PJU-2941 in the collection of Nederlands Fotomuseum. In "Tusschen Nijl en Congo, Onwetenschappelijke ervaringen tijdens een pygmeeën onderzoek in NO Congo" K.N.A.G, Vol. LI, 1934

Blood Hunter

Equally relevant for society, but in an entirely different way, is the research of photographer/researcher Andrea Stultiens into the photographs of explorer Paul Julien (1901-2001). In this age of “Black Lives Matter”, the African expeditions of this self- appointed “blood Hunter” cast an interesting light on how Westerners dealt with the inhabitants of former colonies. Julien took blood samples from people in Uganda, Sierra Leone and Tanzania for genealogical research. He even hoped to unravel the evolutionary history of humankind. His method is controversial because it sometimes took place under force and ultimately yielded little result. Furthermore, some of the conclusions are shocking. For example, one of the conclusions from his expeditions in “dark Afrika” was that ‘pygmies have a higher morality than niggers’.

The photos and films he made are often of a high quality and gained him a huge audience. ‘It has contributed to our distorted, simplistic view of Africa,’ thinks Stultiens. ‘I’d like to gain more insight into that with my research.’

Since 2012, she has been studying the photos from the collection of the Nederlands Fotomuseum [Netherlands Photography Museum]. These are beautiful but also elicit many questions. Stultiens thought it would be interesting to show the people pictured or their descendants the photos. ‘After all, the photos portray somebody’s parents or grandparents.’

‘I hope that it will help people to be more open to insights that do not fit into their world view.
- Andrea Stultiens

But how do you fund that? Despite doing a PhD in the PhDArts doctoral programme, Stultiens has not published enough to be eligible for research grants. ‘Therefore, this grant from the Idea Generator provided an outcome for me.’

By sharing photos during trips to Africa and through Facebook groups she came to know all sort of new things. The origin of an extremely rare mask that Julien photographed in Sierra Leone, for example, and that of a silver crown that one man in another photo is wearing.

Paramount Chief Desmond Kargobai III, whom she met in Sierra Leone was pleasantly surprised when he saw a photo of Julien from 1934 with his father on it. A film about dancers wearing masks, which Julien shot during the same visit, caused the chief to re-enact the dance in 2020.

What should the quest into the “somewhat problematic” explorer Julien ultimately yield? ‘I hope that it will help people to be more open to insights that do not fit into their world view. With the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, that aim has acquired a new urgency.’

Tekst: Edo Beerda

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