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MIT's Silk Pavilion Explores Digital and Biological Computing With Silkworms

MIT Media Lab's Mediated Matter Research Group has a thing for silkworms and is using them to "print" architecture.

MIT Media Lab's Mediated Matter Research Group has a thing for silkworms. In their latest project, The Silk Pavilion, they were inspired by the silkworm's ability to spin a 3D cocoon out of a “single multi-property silk thread (1km in length).” The MIT researchers wanted to see how the digital and biological can be joined in creating material that can be scaled to products and architecture.

The Mediated Matter group, led by Prof. Neri Oxman, and working in collaboration with Prof. Fiorenzo Omenetto (TUFTS University) and Dr. James Weaver (WYSS Institute, Harvard University), used 26 polygonal panels made of silk threads laid down by a CNC (Computer-Numerically Controlled) machine to create the underlying structure. They then unleashed a “swarm of 6,500 silkworms,” which spun “flat non-woven silk patches as they locally reinforced the gaps across CNC-deposited silk fibers.”

Dr. Omenetto, it should be noted, has spent several years researching silk. A biomedical engineering and physics professor, Omenetto eventually realized that silk was incredibly flexible raw material, and has recently made efforts to revolutionize healthcare with silk, which is highly biocompatible. In fact, silk is already being used to form tissue scaffolds for reconstructive surgery. 

With The Silk Pavilion project, however, there is an interesting interplay between the CNC's algorithm, which lays down a single continuous thread with varying density, and the silkworm's very own biological algorithms. That is, the coding of the CNC's 0s and 1s meets the silkworm's DNA coding. Digital and biological computers are working in concert.

Mediated Matter calls the silkworm a “biological printer,” and one can see why. Whether it's 3D or bio-hacking laser printers, anything that can print is of particular interest these days, as humans explore alternative means of manufacture and production. 

Although the domesticated silkworm, Bombyx mori, has long been used in research and textile production, MIT researchers only recently observed that spatial and environmental conditions came into play with the silkworms. 

The geometrical density of the pavilion, as well variations in heat and natural light, caused the silkworms to “migrate to darker and denser areas.” To that end, Mediated Matter gave The Silk Pavilion a “season-specific sun path diagram,” which ensured that locked-in rays of natural light penetrated the space from South to East elevations. “The central oculus is located against the East elevation and may be used as a sun-clock,” notes Mediated Matter. As noted, the silkworms responded to this sun path and wove accordingly. 

“Parallel basic research explored the use of silkworms as entities that can 'compute' material organization based on external performance criteria,” writes Mediated Matter. “Specifically, we explored the formation of non-woven fiber structures generated by the silkworms as a computational schema for determining shape and material optimization of fiber-based surface structures.”

Mediated Matter notes that in only a few months' time, moths “can produce 1.5 million eggs with the potential of constructing up to 250 additional pavilions.” To create the conditions for this, the pavilion would have to be left as-is. 

The Silk Pavilion research definitely has some exciting upside, especially for smaller-scale products and bulk textile production. Architecturally, MIT doesn't specify how this fusion of CNC-deposited silk and silkworm construction could be incorporated into larger architectural structures. 

But, given silk's mind-bending flexibility, the potential might well be limitless. 

Mediated Matter researchers include: Markus Kayser, Jared Laucks, Carlos David Gonzalez Uribe, Jorge Duro-Royo and Prof. Neri Oxman (Director).

(via Creative Applications)