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Brief Published: 5 Jun 2019

Microbe-Grown Headphones: Sustainable Materials for Tech

Korvaa headphones

Mycelium and bioplastic are among the six microbially grown substances used to create the Korvaa headphones – a pioneering test case for new sustainable materials in industrial design. The experimental collaboration demonstrates the potential of synthetic biology by producing naturally derived materials for use in consumer products.

Finnish design studio Aivan worked with scientists from VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland to produce the conceptual prototype. The studio chose to tackle headphones because of the challenge they pose. 

Typically, they are made up of a number of different material components (hard, soft, pliable, rigid, foam-like, fabric and mesh), which are entirely non-biodegradable. The team’s response is a headset made exclusively from grown materials.

A bioplastic, grown using lactic acid from yeast, forms the main structure. This biodegradable, petroleum-free, polylactic acid (PLA) polymer is strong but flexible, making it suitable for 3D printing.

The ear padding is made from a fungus called trichoderma reesei. It produces a foaming protein called hyrophobin, which is mixed with plant cellulose to create a stable but soft foam-like structure. A leather-like material made from mycelium (the root system of mushrooms) is then used to cover the foam. See Mycelium-Based Vegan Leather Alternative for a similar example.

Meanwhile, a biosynthetic spider silk is used to create the mesh cover for the speakers. Produced using microbes, the protein-based material is made with an electrospinning method (where a negatively charged extrusion tip fires nanofibres onto a positively charged plate). Other components are made using cellulose and a cellulose-mycelium composite.

For now, the headphones are just a concept. However, such technologies and grown materials will play a major role in the inevitable shift towards a sustainable, circular economy.

We expect to see more adoption of smart, natural materials within consumer tech products. For examples of items on the market which possess eco-friendly natural elements, see our Colour, Material & Finish reports from CES 2019 and IFA 2018.