Finalist 2021

Phycoforms

Shimroth John Thomas / Seaweed Solutions CRC-P / Museum of Old & New Art (MONA) / RMIT University

Phycoforms – Building the future with seaweed.

Phycoforms was created to tackle the unsustainability of the construction industry by tapping into Australia’s rapidly emerging seaweed industry.

The Phycoforms product range consists of 100% biodegradable architectural products which are derived from the residues of harvested brown seaweed and other waste resources.

Through circular economy thinking, the design addresses climate change, waste generation & repurposing of locally available waste resources.

Design Brief

Globally, buildings and infrastructures are responsible for at least 40% of all greenhouse gas emissions (European Commission 2020). In 2018-19 the Australian construction and demolition sector recorded 27million tonnes of waste. (National Waste Report 2020).

Further uncovering showed that bricks, tiles, concrete, and cement accounted for 30% of the greenhouse footprint of building materials in Australia (Australian Greenhouse Office 2006)

To tackle the unsustainability of the existing construction materials I looked to a circular approach to create a 100% biodegradable alternative. With my background in architecture and a recent fascination with the wonders of seaweed, I set out to explore if extracted alginate from brown seaweed could be used to not only replace cement in the construction process but also aid in the fire resilience of building materials.


This project was developed by:

Design Process

To gain a more thorough understanding of the seaweed species and their properties I visited the seaweed farms and hatchery facilities run by the Seaweed Solutions CRC-P team down in Tasmania.

This opportunity helped me gain valuable insights into the farming process and the potential waste streams. Since the entire seaweed crop is photosynthetic, the plan was to utilize this B-grade harvest/residue to create a higher value architectural product.

Another resource identified was shellfish waste obtained by farming mussels alongside seaweed. This symbiotic relationship not only creates commercially viable biomass but also helps in ocean deacidification and habitat creation for other marine species.

To carry out the preliminary material prototyping storm cast seaweed was collected from Mornington Peninsula and the other ingredients from local cafes and recycling facilities.

Extensive material research enabled the extraction of alginate in a home setting, and this led to further experimentation to understand the workability of the different ingredients. The lack of access to university facilities slowed down the material development but mentorship and guidance from experts in the seaweed industry enabled me to develop some promising prototypes.

Different species of brown seaweed were examined and in fact, the most promising prototype recipe with regards to strength and durability involved a combination of two harvested brown seaweed species.

Drop tests at home proved that the strength was comparable to traditional bricks, but unfortunately, standardized lab tests to test compressive strength have not been carried out due to the recurring lockdowns.

Water susceptibility tests highlighted the need to explore biodegradable waterproof films. And fire resistance tests carried out at home using a blow torch showed that the presence of alginate and CaCO3 in the various samples aided in the structural adequacy and integrity of the prototypes.

Design Excellence

A challenge commonly faced with emerging biomaterials is the longer duration of the research and development phase. To tackle this issue, I sought out to simultaneously explore the aesthetic and scientific aspects of the material.

Persistence and passion to take this initiative forward led me to work closely with the experts from Seaweed Solutions CRC-P and the Museum of Old & New Art (MONA) in Tasmania.

Site visits to the grow labs at Institute for Marine Antarctic Studies (IMAS) and the hatchery facilities at Triabunna helped in the understanding of the intricacies of the seaweed lifecycle.

At MONA I had the pleasure to meet and discuss my ideas with Kirsha Kaechele and David Walsh, the owners of MONA. Discussions with Kirsha, enabled Phycoforms to land its first interested partner ready to explore the visual aspects of seaweed and architecture. Upon successful material testing, Phycoforms have been presented with the opportunity to build a non-structural seaweed feature wall mimicking rammed earth at an upcoming project.

Designed initially for a niche clientele who are climate-conscious, this product once gaining popularity and economies of scale, can become an alternative to the existing unsustainable construction materials in the market.

Design Innovation

The unsustainability of the construction industry is quite evident and with global populations set to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, the need for innovative solutions is paramount. The goal of Phycoforms is to develop architectural products which have a significantly lower embodied energy compared to the existing materials in the market. Therefore, unlike conventional bricks which are fired at temperatures >800°C the Phycoforms products were heated to temperatures <200°C for a longer duration.

Over the last decade, the world has started to realize the benefits of seaweed farming to tackle the climate crisis. And although the properties of seaweed have the potential to make high-value products, increased farming will result in greater quantities of low-quality waste biomass which could then be used in the Phycoforms production process.

During my final thesis presentation, Dr. Alecia Bellgrove(DEAKIN University) provided some invaluable feedback regarding seaweed and bioremediation. The possibility of locking up foul/contaminated seaweed in my architectural products could be an incredible opportunity to clean polluted waters while providing an abundant source of seaweed biomass that would otherwise end up in landfills. Further material testing needs to be carried out with foul seaweed to understand its properties in comparison to commercially harvested seaweed.

Another interesting seaweed research topic uncovered was alginate's unique fire-retardant properties. A process called crosslinking causing gelation can have a significant effect on the physical, mechanical, and thermal properties of alginates (Kabir et al. 2020). Crosslinking in flame retardancy is important because it is known to promote both the amount and coherence of char formation.

The prototypes tested at home using a blow torch displayed promising signs of fire resistance. Once fire tests in accordance with Australian standards 1530.4/8 are carried out this material can potentially be used in the design of bushfire resilient structures.

Design Impact

An integral part of the Phycoforms journey is of course material testing. In the next year focus will be on carrying out strength, water susceptibility, and fire resistance tests in accordance with the Australian standards. Another important part would be carrying out experiments with foul/contaminated seaweed versus commercially harvested seaweed residues.

Successful testing of experiments with bioremediated seaweed can unlock great opportunities to clean up the local bayside councils which have large amounts of pollutants entering the ocean.

Unlike other seaweed-based innovations like food and bioplastics which only cycle carbon within the system, Phycoforms products have the potential to lock up the carbon for a longer duration thereby sequestering carbon. With the commercial seaweed market forecast to reach $20.38 billion by 2024, there is a great opportunity not only within Australia but globally.

The circularity of the entire process is what makes Phycoforms a viable opportunity for Australia and globally. Wastes such as coffee grinds, shellfish waste, paper, and sawdust which would otherwise be discarded and sent to landfills have now been given a new lease of life by getting locked up in these innovative architectural products.

Circular Design and Sustainability Features

Adhering to circular economy principles, Phycoforms aims to become an industry leader in sustainable construction materials by starting with its initial products the Phycowall, Phycoblock and the Phycoboard.

One of the key factors with the Phycoforms manufacturing process is the low embodied energy as compared to traditional construction processes. The replacement of existing construction materials with the Phycoforms product range can not only reduce Australia’s carbon emissions but can in fact help lock up unwanted pollutants.

By utilizing organic seaweed biomass which in fact helps deacidify the ocean and in certain scenarios absorb unwanted heavy metal pollutants from inland wastewater sources, Phycoforms can help lock up carbon and clean the environment.

Phycoforms sets a new benchmark for sustainable design, and it is also distinctly Victorian. It understands that sustainability is a systemic problem, so it proposes a material/product/system solution. This holistic and transdisciplinary approach highlights the strength of Victoria’s multicultural population and strong education system.

This also reflects the future role of designers. As the world’s problems become more complex and intertwined, designers bring value by connecting and balancing different perspectives in a purpose-driven way. This approach results in something greater than the sum of its parts.

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