It seems like nearly every video from the MIT MediaLab is bound to be come a "holy-crap-technology-is-awesome" viral hit, and the latest one from the Mediated Matter group is no exception. Unveiled last week, the Silk Pavilion "explores the relationship between digital and biological fabrication on product and architectural scales."Inspired by the silkworm's ability to generate a 3D cocoon out of a single multi-property silk thread (1km in length), the overall geometry of the pavilion was created using an algorithm that assigns a single continuous thread across patches providing various degrees of density. Overall density variation was informed by the silkworm itself deployed as a biological "printer" in the creation of a secondary structure. A swarm of 6,500 silkworms was positioned at the bottom rim of the scaffold spinning flat non-woven silk patches as they locally reinforced the gaps across CNC-deposited silk fibers.
It reportedly takes roughly 5,500 larvae to produce one kilogram of raw silk, so the swarm of silkworms enlisted to fabricate the pavilion deposited just over two and a half pounds of their gossamer saliva (it solidifies when exposed to air) across the 26 panels of the prefabricated primary structure. Each of these artificially-laced polygons is intended to be a magnified analog of the much finer structure that the silkworms instinctively spin in the smaller negative spaces.
In traditional sericulture, the pupae of the Bombyx mori must be exterminated prior to the point at which they release proteolytic enzymes to break down the cocoon (and emerge as adult moths); the precious yield degrades upon exposure to the biological compound. (Interestingly, the enzymatic degradation of silk is of interest for medical applications, i.e. sutures.1) Boiling the cotton-ball-like cocoons effectively prevents the pupae from maturing and also happens to facilitate the subsequent unravelling of the silk.2
Modeling by Jorge Duro-Royo
Not only has the Mediated Matter team managed to harvest the silk in situ (so to speak), but they've also managed to breed a veritable swarm of domesticated silkmoths—"following their pupation stage the silkworms were removed"—and indeed an adult moth is shown at the end of the video. However, I do wish they would elaborate on the statement that "resulting moths can produce 1.5 million eggs with the potential [to construct] up to 250 additional pavilions." Cursory research indicates that typical female lays up to 500 eggs, which corresponds to the figure (assuming half of the original 6,500 are male), but—based on my admittedly borrowed understanding of entomology—250 seems like a wildly optimistic projection... to say nothing of the fact that fabricating the superstructure would likely be the limiting factor in scalability.
Of course, this is precisely the twofold purpose of the pavilion: both to demonstrate the feasibility of using silkworms to 'extrude' raw material at anthropomorphic scale and to explore biomimetic architecture by designing a fibrous, non-woven structure. The methodology begins and ends with the silkworm, but the Silk Pavilion is not just an experiment in harnessing the creature's prodigious ability—it's also a step towards developing a symbiotic design and fabrication process.
Neri Oxman, Director of the Mediated Matter lab, oversaw the research conducted by MIT's Markus Kayser, Jared Laucks, Carlos David Gonzalez Uribe and Jorge Duro-Royo along with Fiorenzo Omenetto of Tufts University and James Weaver of Harvard's Wyss Institute.