Could Bacteria and Algae Make a Tree?

VISION: Turn food byproducts into wood alternatives

Team: Gabriel Tavas, Angela Andrada, Jared Fligelman, Kanika Leang, Eddie Rajcevic, Hannah Gaffner

A single hardwood tree takes decades to grow to the size where it can capture up to 48 pounds of carbon dioxide in one year. But such trees are regularly cut down to create furniture and other wood products, and deforestation rates continue to rise. 

In search of fast-growing alternatives to wood, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign students created a wood substitute called Symmetry. Wood has two main components: cellulose and lignin. To replicate this in the lab, students found sources for both components. Cellulose can be grown by bacteria—and is commonly thrown away by facilities that make kombucha. The students found a local kombucha production facility that had extra amounts of the symbiotic collection of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY). To make Symmetry, they mix this cellulose with agar, a source of lignin derived from red algae. After blending liquified SCOBY and agar in hot water, they place the slurry in a dehydrator to dry it. Once they have a brick of the dried substance, they flatten the material in a hydraulic press. 

“We’ve made different colors to mimic a variety of tree species, cut the wood with powertools like a lathe, and even laser etched artwork into it with other students at the university. All of this was done without cutting down any trees or using a drop of petroleum,” said the team.

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Cite this Article

Challenge, Biodesign. “Could Bacteria and Algae Make a Tree?” Issues in Science and Technology (April 1, 2022).