Tavas and his team make Pyrus by blending the cellulose and pouring it into a mold, to which they add agar, an algae-based gel, as a binder.
As demand for wood keeps growing, scientists are scrambling to find alternative sources for the material to cut the industry’s environmental footprint. From lab-grown wood to wood 3D-printed with the help of logging waste, innovators are hard at work to find viable solutions.
Design student Gabe Tavas is among those innovators. His invention is a material called Pyrus — a wood alternative made from kombucha brewing waste, and the winner of this year’s national James Dyson Award.
A student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Tavas began working on Pyrus after he saw other designers use kombucha cellulose — a slimy biofilm that forms on the surface of kombucha as it brews — to make sustainable items.
Driven by a desire to design products that have a minimal impact on the planet, the student decided to explore the material and started looking for ways it could be used. “I started doing more research into problems like deforestation, and then it hit me that wood is mostly composed of cellulose,” he says. “Trees use cellulose to create their basic structures, so what if we got that ingredient from bacteria instead?”
Tavas eventually chose to focus on creating a viable substitute for exotic woods because so many are endangered. Although highly revered by woodworkers for their aesthetics and durability properties, the demand for these woods has led to massive rainforest deforestation.
After creating the first kombucha-based wood himself, the designer started working with The Plant, a circular-design hub working on sustainable food solutions. There, a company called KombuchAid became “enthusiastic” about his project, he says, and began supplying the bacterial cellulose.
As explained by Fast Company, Tavas and his team make Pyrus by blending the cellulose and pouring it into a mold, to which they add agar, an algae-based gel, as a binder. They then dehydrate the material and flatten it smooth with a mechanical press. The end result is a sheet of synthetic wood that can be sanded and cut just like wood from a tree, and which can biodegrade.
While some wood alternatives upcycle sawdust, that still involves trees being cut down. Pyrus, in comparison, “is great from an efficiency perspective in reducing waste from lumber cutting,” Tavas says, “but particularly for these endangered woods. Trying to keep as many of those [trees] standing as possible . . . is ideal, particularly since climate change is only escalating.”
So far, Tavas has used Pyrus to make small items like guitar picks and jewelry, but his ultimate goal is to find a way to 3D print the bacterial cellulose into bigger objects that would be difficult to make otherwise.