Researchers have used 3D printing to create a novel, environmentally-friendly material made of algae that has applications for products including photosynthetic bio-garments that could help tackle climate change.

The international team from the University of Rochester in the US and Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands used 3D printers to deposit living algae onto bacterial cellulose, an organic compound produced and excreted by bacteria that has many unique mechanical properties, including flexibility, toughness and strength.

“We provide the first example of an engineered photosynthetic material that is physically robust enough to be deployed in real-life applications,” says Srikkanth Balasubramanian, a postdoctoral research associate at Delft and the first author of the paper.

The combination of living (microalgae) and nonliving (bacterial cellulose) components resulted in a unique material that is tough and resilient while also eco-friendly, biodegradable, and simple and scalable to produce.

The plant-like nature of the material means it can use photosynthesis to “feed” itself over periods of many weeks, and it is also able to be regenerated – a small sample of the material can be grown on-site to make more materials.

The unique characteristics of the material make it ideal for a variety of applications, including new products such as artificial leaves, photosynthetic skins, or photosynthetic bio-garments.

Bio-garments made from algae would address some of the negative environmental effects of the current textile industry, the researchers say, in that they would be high-quality fabrics that would be sustainability produced and completely biodegradable.

They would also work to purify the air by removing carbon dioxide through photosynthesis and would not need to be washed as often as conventional garments, reducing water usage.

“Our living materials are promising because they can survive for several days with no water or nutrients access, and the material itself can be used as a seed to grow new living materials,” says Marie-Eve Aubin-Tam, an associate professor of bionanoscience at Delft.

“This opens the door to applications in remote areas, even in space, where the material can be seeded on site.”

The research is published in the journal Advanced Functional Materials.