Tree of Culture
European Spruce (Picea Abies) has evergreen leaves and likes to grow in deep, wet soils.
Once harvested it can be turned into wood chips, and then into cellulose fibre by ways of extracting a brownish substance called lignin.
Cellulose and lignin are the two most abundant organic polymers on earth. While one is used excessively in a host of different industries such as the paper and textile industry, the other stays largely unexplored, remaining an underutilised by-product. In fact, to date lignin is mostly burned in thermal waste plants for the production of energy, with all the consequential negative emissions.
This project traces the journey that those two polymers take, back to the moment when the cellulose fibre was held together by the lignin in a tree.
In Europe’s agroforestry, Picea Abies, or European Spruce, is one of the most cultivated trees, often grown in large monocultures for its pulp, timber and resin.
Complex industrial production uprooted the connection between plants as suppliers of products and the consumer. It is difficult to hold a piece of paper and see a tree. The objects made in this project are meant to evoke mindfulness and a connection to the source of their material, when held they can hopefully remind you of a tree, the rough texture of the bark, the year rings that keep track of the seasons and the landscape in which the tree grew.
When trying to bridge the gap(s) existing as part of the relationship between Humans and the Ecosystem, it is inevitably needed to analyse and reflect on Nature and Culture, as widely overarching notions that constantly inform and intertwine with one another.
From anthropologists and social scientists to technologists and life scientists (and many more), plenty has been written and discussed about such complex relations, though, beyond theory and speculative projects, design practitioners have hardly succeeded in effectively embedding novel perspectives, as revealed through suitable and innovative physical manifestations, that could allow for reconsidering the materialities characterising the multitude of objects/products surrounding us in everyday life. This, particularly by looking at the origin of such materialities, can be seen as the very starting point from which many of the very urgent issues derive that we face today.
When considering the definition of Culture (i.e., Cambridge dictionary), as “the way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people (humans) at a particular time”, it is evident that the contemporary way of life has proven negatively disruptive, as it approached the Natural context we are part of as something that could be massively exploited and eventually depleted and destroyed, without taking into great account the inherent need for natural resources to seamlessly flow through the system, constantly balancing and regenerating it.
The Tree of Culture is a design-research project exploring, through storytelling and by means of tangible physicalities, the immense potential offered by lignin when reconnected with cellulose, through processes of recombination and rematerialisation of residual matters.
At the centre of the physical material research stands the ambition to find multiple ways to reconnect lignin with cellulose and link them conceptually to the processing of the two polymers across scales while imagining possible futures of regenerative transformation.
Currently, those reconnections manifest themselves in three different materialities:
1. Thermoformed biocomposite consisting of lignin and cellulose. The two components are mixed together and are then filled into a metal mould and heat pressed at 180° C with around 10 tons of pressure. Heat and pressure activate the inherent binding properties of lignin without the addition of synthetic substances. Just like in trees lignin binds the cellulose fibre to each other, therefore creating a remade wood bioplastic.
2. Polymer Clay made from Lignin Sulfonate, cellulose fibre and water. Being a by-product of paper production, which in itself is a gigantic industry, lignin comes in many different forms that vary depending on the different paper production methods. One of the most commonly used methods is called kraft pulping in which the lignin is made soluble through the use of sulfates. This lignin stays water soluble which offers the opportunity to create hydrogen bonds between the lignin polymers and once it is mixed with cellulose fibre it turns into a strong polymer clay that is plant-based without any synthetic components.
3. Ink / Coating made from lignin, Arabic gum, turpentine from the orange tree, linseed oil and water. This ink can be used to silkscreen print onto cellulose based paper and through that form another reconnection between lignin and cellulose. Another application is to create a coating for the polymer clay and the thermoformed biocomposite, to make it water resistant through increasing the amount of Arabic gum and linseed oil in the formula.
Information submitted by the maker and edited by the Future Materials Bank.
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