In the 21st century, we have come to expect a great deal from materials without realising it. I barely think twice about how my front door opens, or the material properties required to keep it standing. I would scarcely consider the generations of research that went into refining materials, just so that I can flop into my favourite chair and sit comfortably. To be considered usable, a material needs to balance a multitude of qualities; strength, durability, weather-ability, aesthetics and many more. Often these can be interlinked in more complex ways than we can imagine.
Image: Orb (Organic Refuse Bio-Compound) samples
Selecting the combination of molecules and conditions to get the properties you’re after is no easy feat. In many ways using pure reagents and virgin resources makes it easier to control ratios and direct an outcome. However, decades of research shows that the plant world is a rich and varied source of complex chemical structures, many of which are difficult to synthesise in a lab. Just look at the ways we’ve tried to re-engineer the properties of wood. Craftsmanship aside, there’s a reason why high quality heirloom furniture is still made from solid wood and not its substitutes.
Tapping into the world's natural library opens up elegant pathways for tailoring materials, however creating a viable bio-mimetic substitute has been a significant challenge. This is partly because at BIOHM we are doing this by harnessing the abundant supply of plant waste we have in our economy. Using plant matter in this way has brought added levels of complexity to the process, with multiple molecules present, side reactions and by-products creating a messy and complex chemical system to untangle. This is the playground that our R&D group play in!
A prime example is the development of our orange peel ‘Orb’ (Organic Refuse Bio-compound). Processing the peels in the way we do, allows us to activate the natural plasticisers present in the peel. The degree to which the peels are activated is what allows us to add a range of features such as pliability, colour, or mechanical strength to the material. Whilst I can’t go into too much detail about our processes, what we are essentially able to do is utilise the natural compounds present in plant matter.
Understanding these compounds and how to unlock them has been essential to the process. We are steadily developing our understanding, which has allowed us to create several colorful variations. The breakthroughs we’ve achieved thus far, reflect the fine art of applying the intricacies inherent in the natural world to high-performing materials.