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Zuzana Gombošová fed coconut water to bacteria, and developed the unique material Malai

They fed coconut water to a particular kind of bacteria. And then they added plant matter into the resulting slimy goo. The end result was a kind of leather material of appeal to vegans, the environmentally conscious, and perhaps even regular consumers.

Zuzana Gombošová fed coconut water to bacteria, and developed the unique material Malai

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Slovak-born Zuzana Gombošová began experimenting with bacterial cellulose during her studies at the London-based Central Saint Martins art school. Now, working in conjunction with Indian product designer and producer Susmith, Gombošová has developed a unique new material made from bacterial cellulose and plant fibres, introduced onto the market under the brand name Malai.

Malai is a one-hundred percent natural material similar in certain respects to leather or impregnated paper. Its production serves as an example of an environmentally conscious, properly managed production line, with the end product a both functional and also completely biodegradable composite material. Its chief ingredient is bacterial cellulose – a natural polymer produced by several types of bacteria. In the case of Malai, Acetobacter Xylinum is at the front of the pack.

Zuzana Gombošová was able to propose a process of catalysing micro-organism growth back during her studies in London. “The beginnings were very modest. And when I first managed to generate material of around 5 cm in diameter, I was in seventh heaven, because I had spent a month getting nowhere,” she recalls. In 2014, Gombošová presented her cultivated leather at the Designblok Prague International Design Festival. Inspiration came by way of the Philippines, where it was discovered that coconut water served as a great nutritional source for the leather-producing bacteria. “It is believed that the process of creating cellulose from bacteria was discovered in the Philippines about a century ago.

Samples of the bio-composite material Malai; the range of colouring options stems from a variety of natural dyes (photo: Marie Bartošová)

Prototype product utilising Malai (photo: Marie Bartošová)

Someone evidently poured the water from a green coconut into a container and then forgot about it. Then they returned to it later and discovered that a white film had formed on the top. I’m not sure how this led them to the conclusion that this membrane could be eaten. But either way, the locals combined this fermented substance with a sweet syrup, and it continues to be prepared this way.” The dessert is known as Nata de Coco – or coconut gel. “For decades a kind of cottage industry has operated there to produce this sweet dessert. During the 1990s, strong demand from the Japanese meant it even became a driver of the local economy,” notes Gombošová.

But bacterial cellulose is of interest to more than just gastronomes. Unlike plant cellulose (whose polymer chains form the basic cellular structures of most plants) the bacterial variety offers certain exceptional mechanical properties. On the down side, upon drying out, the substance not only shrinks significantly, but also becomes brittle, meaning it is easily torn. “We tried to find a means to increase the stability of the material as well as its resistance to humidity and moisture. The aim was to make it more robust,” notes Gombošová, who then continued development of the material via her ties to south-western India. This led to a series of experiments with plant fibres. “India boasts a huge number of natural resources of the kind that are not utilised en masse. One such example are banana tree stalks, from which one can extract a resilient and shiny fibres.” Gombošová and her colleagues then gradually discovered how individual fibres influence the properties of the resulting composite material. “And, after trying out around a hundred different formulations, we eventually created something resembling today’s Malai.”

Asides from plant fibres, Gombošová also examined the possibility of collaborating with local farmers and coconut processors, who would often drain excess coconut water into the surrounding environment, which could lead to the soil becoming excessively acidic. “This is water from ripe brown coconuts. This is not the same thing as the water from green unripe coconuts, which has today become so popular as a refreshing drink,” says Gombošová, of the more sustainable model of harvesting ripe coconuts.

Zuzana Gombošová working with coconut water from ripe coconuts to assist in the production of bacterial cultures

Animal leather? No, leather made from bacterial cellulose and plant fibres

Producing Malai
Aerobic bacteria chiefly require oxygen, suitable temperatures, and a source of food (substrates). Growth environments can include tea leaves, wine sediment from barrels,  pineapple juice, or coconut water – the latter the most prized of all by Gombošová for its high yields. Optimum temperatures are between 24 to 35 degrees Celsius. “And this is something that can be sustained in southern India year-round. It is warm and humid,  coconuts grow everywhere, and bacteria enjoys naturally favourable conditions.” Conversely, notes the materials engineer, the situation in Europe would be far more complicated. “In Europe, you would have to artificially simulate these conditions of constant temperature, and constant infusion of appropriate substrates. It wouldn’t be impossible, but it would certainly significantly increase production costs.”

After collecting the coconut water in a container, the substance is sterilised. The size of the container directly corresponds to the size of the intended sheets of faux leather. The bacteria are then introduced and begin the fermentation process as they feast on the nutritious water. “The containers must be kept in the most sterile possible conditions so as to prevent other micro-organisms getting into the air which might contaminate the delicate mix. Similarly, it is also important to keep the culture out of direct sunlight,” notes Gombošová.

The fermentation process takes about two weeks, ultimately yielding a sheet of gelatinous material. This is then mixed with plant fibres, most often of the banana, cannabis and agave varieties. The strength of this material can be increased by adding natural gums and resins. After that comes a phase of air-drying, dying, and treating with a mix of natural oils and starches. The end result is a strong, flexible and water resistant material. Its can be coloured by a variety of natural pigments – these include indigo, madder and turmeric. And even the more limited number of tones which perfectly correspond to the visage of the material present a striking range of colour possibilities.

Gombošová and Susmith continue to work on refining the technical aspects of the process. “Every time I return back to Europe after a year in India, and I show the material to people there, they notice a certain leap forward in the quality of the material. And that pleases me.  It is important that the quality of our output continues to improve.” And now the small enterprise known as Malai is gearing up to becoming a viable commercially available product. Introduced to the market in October 2017, the pair aims to persuade customers that this material is a functional and viable fabric. Gombošová believes that they have created a truly environmentally friendly material, one which could replace a range of other less green materials on the market. “At the same time, we seek to excel in terms of our work. There aren’t many people in the world working with something like this, and so one needs to develop know-how and technical approaches which can then be built upon via additional development.”

Although Zuzana Gombošová has designed an impressive collection of fashion accessories under the brand name of Coconut Karma, she insists that the Malai enterprise is not merely a PR exercise designed to draw attention to her clothing line. To that end, she even offers Malai to other designers interested in working with the material. Presently, she is working on a new collection with designers Lea Oneko and Sophie Rowley. Both, according to Gombošová, demonstrate a willingness to experiment and also a sensitivity for the properties and potential of Malai.
Asides from a properly developed and environmentally friendly production model, the firm also demonstrates a gift for philosophical humour. Asides from a passion for sustainability and material design, the Slovak and Indian pair are also connected by a common love for coconuts, and faith in a kind of “coconut karma”. Gombošová jokingly notes: “If you try to trip up others by placing logs in their way, then you end up with a coconut falling on your head. So far we have been fortunate with regards to collaborators, and so we hope that such unfortunate [examples of karma] will not occur!”

Malai seems somewhat ill-suited as a sterile, over-processed material layered with excessive adornments. But given the current trend of fashion design towards a return to more natural materials, as well as random patterns, and throwbacks to a simpler aesthetic, Malai, with its unpretentious appearance, may yet stand a chance in the wider marketplace. At present, Gombošová says she is ready to undertake small-scale collaboration projects; time, and also technological capabilities, will then tell whether production can be scaled-up to meet potentially higher demand. “We are seeking investment in order to be able to further hone our technology and methods, and to be able to increase production. Many of our processes are still undertaken by hand, and this significantly increases the time it takes.”

Collaboration has already been undertaken with the Slovak studio Crafting Plastics! (CP!) with a view to developing a new kind of composite material. CP! seeks to create new kinds of bioplastics (for more, see the English-language summary article in our print edition). “Both of our studios work with materials which are easily biodegradable, and that lends itself to exploring ways to combine them. But collaborating across two continents is not easy, especially when you consider time differences and also the time it takes to send packages,” laments Zuzana Gombošová. “My teaming up with [founder and product designer] Vlasta Kubušová from CP! came entirely by chance. Our work happened to be described in an article in a Slovak magazine, and it was interesting that we both worked in similar endeavours. And so it was really a matter of fate, and it was inevitable that we had to meet.”

Also on the cards is a study of the potential of cultivating 3D objects via pre-determined forms. But this first requires development of the proper equipment. “We have already succeeded in growing bacterial cellulose on a 3D substrate made from jute. We would like to continue our experiments via the use of various different types of forms, for example those made from bioplastics,” explains Gombošová, adding that such machinery requires more tests and additional financial resources. And not even properly-functioning equipment guarantees perfect results. “Just because you have succeeded once in cultivating material via a 3D form, that doesn’t mean you can easily repeat it. After all, these are biological processes which are difficult to control.”

Zuzana Gombošová is certainly not naive with regards to the trial and error nature of her work. And the adventure inherent in working with bacteria and coconuts is also reflected in the place where the designer undertakes her work. “Life in India often presents many cultural differences. One of these is the way that locals view time. It isn’t like in most of Europe, where people are guided by the calendar, and the minute and hour hands on their watches. In the Indian state of Kerala festivals and celebrations come first, then the day-to-day life routine, and only after that work.” Gombošová adds that she tries to concentrate on getting the most out of her work at the most appropriate time. Living in India, she has also adapted to a world constantly on the move – always having plans B, C, and D tucked away in her pocket.

Material which has been dyed and prepared (photo: Malai archive)

The aerobic bacteria used to make Malai chiefly require oxygen, a temperature range between 24 and 35 degrees Celsius, and the correct substrate, which in this case is coconut water. “This is something which is possible to achieve all year in southern India. The conditions are warm, and coconuts grow all around, and so the bacteria have a naturally favourable environment,” explains Zuzana Gombošová

Leather alternatives
It is hardly surprising that at a time when veganism has become a lifestyle choice for many, and at a time when biodegradable materials production is very much a hot topic, that non-animal natural composite materials, which seek to resemble classic cow hide leather in both appearance and properties, are emerging.

In terms of leather substitute materials, one material which has already found great success is the so-called  BioCouture from New York-based fashion designer Suzanne Lee. Her designs produced from bacterial cellulose are centred on a principal that eventually customers will be able to have clothes “grown” to order in the desired sizes and shapes. The Czech and Slovak scene also offers some similar examples, for example Hana Matyášová, a student of the Faculty of Fine Arts at Masaryk University in Brno, who has spent more than a year seeking to develop a bacterial paper. A trained book-binder, Matyášová is exploring the  possibilities of creating books from materials other than plant cellulose. She has already successfully created a paper-like substance which can withstand both screen printing and more modern ink printing. Meanwhile, Viktoria Remiarová of the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava is utilising the cell growth of the Kombucha mushroom to create single-use biodegradable materials. The material also incorporates additional components such as dyes or seeds, creating entirely new opportunities for the use of composite cellulose structures. Remairová has already utilised such a material to create prototype public transport (MHD) tickets.
Efforts by designers to find new material solutions are gaining attention for a number of reasons. In a wider historical context, the search for alternative leathers reflects a change in our relationship with the natural world. Throughout history, leathers and hides were the only sufficiently flexible and resilient materials known to man. In more recent times, efforts have been underway to replicate their properties – including permeability, flexibility, elasticity and an ability to hold their form – in other materials. Synthetic, petroleum-based leathers have been on the market for years. Such materials are appealing to the eye and are cheap to produce, but often lack key traits of real leather such as permeability and biodegradability.

But natural hides also have weaknesses. Despite being resilient to the natural environment, they are often treated with chemicals during tanning or subsequent processing. In many cases these have proven to have negative health consequences for workers in tanneries, for wearing over bare skin, and also at the end of their lifecycles.

Finding a recipe for an alternative material that boasts similar properties to leather is no easy task. But promising materials, including Malai, are being cooked up in studios, kitchens, and scientific laboratories around the world. A wide scope of interdisciplinary knowledge is crucial. This new field of human engineering is being filled by numerous designers, eager to take a progressive approach to material development, emphasising not only aesthetic beauty, but also biodegradability and sustainability. And such pioneers are often joined at the hip by a common belief that there is no such thing as an unusable waste material in the natural world.

25. 4. 2018 Written by Barbora Tydlitátová and Tereza Lišková, Translated by Dominik Jůn

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