Scientists Want to Save Trees With Lab-Grown Furniture

‘Wood-like’ fibers grown in custom shapes could reduce the strain on our forests

Photo: Vladimir Smirnov/Getty Images

To make a product from wood, you need to cut down trees. Collectively, we cut down lots of them. Around 900 million are felled annually around the world — about 2.5 million per day. In the United States, around 40% are used for timber products and wood, which forms many of the furniture pieces around your home. Ikea alone uses 1% of all the world’s commercially harvested wood. To put it into perspective, the company works through 600 tons of particle board every day (a material made from wood scraps) in the production of just one of its products — the famous Billy bookcase.

Only 8% of the world’s forest is properly protected from destruction, leaving the rest open to unsustainable (or even illegal) harvesting. Unsustainable wood has a huge impact on the areas where it’s felled, leading to human rights abuses, the endangerment of species, and even threats to the lives of Indigenous tribes who call the land home. It unbalances the finely tuned natural systems of the world, increasing the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and warms our planet — expected to be two degrees warmer by 2050 at the current rate — while also resulting in the mass extinction of hundreds of animal species and ecosystems.

But one group is turning to science in a bid to avoid using trees for wood altogether. If successful, it would help alleviate some of the strain on the planet. MIT researchers have recently developed a way to grow wood-like fibers in a lab, without soil or sunlight, opening the door for the possibility of lab-grown furniture.

On January 20, a research team led by PhD student Ashley Beckwith announced that they had successfully grown plant tissue that had “wood-like” fibers in a laboratory setting, without the presence of soil or sunlight. Their paper will be published in the Journal of Cleaner Production.

The process began by extracting cells from the leaves of a zinnia plant, then culturing them in a dish. These cells were transferred into a gel that served as a scaffold, or mold, for the growing wood. The researchers then added two plant hormones, auxin and cytokinin, and controlled the levels of both to manipulate the cells, causing them to produce an organic polymer called lignin. As lignin was produced, the cells grew, becoming a rigid “wood-like” structure. Lignin is naturally present in plant cells, especially those that make up wood and bark.

“This is a real chance to bypass all that inefficiency.”

The process is similar to 3D printing, only rather than a computer-controlled process that builds up plastic layers based on a set of coded instructions, the cells print themselves, guided by the hormones and the gel scaffolding to grow into a particular shape. It’s this ability to “mold” that opens up a whole world of opportunity for furniture. Study co-author Luis Fernando Velásquez-García, PhD, thinks it could be possible to grow a table in the future — no chemicals, glues, or fixings required.

The idea behind the experiment was born not only from a desire to be more sustainable; similar to meat grown in a lab, the team believes this process is an opportunity to make extraction and growth more efficient. “The way we get these materials hasn’t changed in centuries and is very inefficient. This is a real chance to bypass all that inefficiency,” Velásquez-García said in a release. The forest-to-furniture chain is certainly in need of modern innovations. Current practices are limited by ineffective cultivation, harvesting, and transport, and they continually use up more and more land, despite its ever-declining availability. Worse still, very little of the yield is actually useful plant materials, and most is used as feed or burned for energy — hardly efficient for something that takes up to 20 years to grow.

Lab-grown furniture, however, is far from market-ready. Co-author Jeffrey Borenstein, PhD, acknowledged in the release that it is “a new paradigm,” but is optimistic that, alongside advances in other technologies such as additive manufacturing — the industrial production name for 3D printing — there is potential to solve some major problems in the agricultural sector. A big unknown is if the process is at all scalable. To be competitive, or better yet replace some of the current wood gathering practices, it will require massive financial investment, likely from both government initiatives and private investors. And even if substantial backing is received, standardizing production will be key to its success, and whether it can really compete on an economic and lifestyle basis remains to be seen.

We live in the era of “fast furniture,” so scaling will be critical if lab-grown furniture is to meet the current public demand. But it’s time to rethink fast furniture as well: The impact of the forest-to-furniture chain doesn’t end with the impacts of deforestation. Once cut down, trees are machined, milled, and transported worldwide. They are then bought by manufacturers, who machine and transport it worldwide again, all before they are sold to the consumer. If these pieces lasted a lifetime, the effects of this process, and the resulting carbon footprint, would be lessened. But most of these products are used for less than their lifespan and thrown away, before the whole cycle repeats, thanks in part due to the continuing decrease in furniture prices. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans throw out more than 12 million tons of furniture and furnishings per year. Only 20% of it is recycled; the other 80% ends up in landfills.

Source: Environmental Protection Agency

In short, the forest-to-furniture chain is a drain on the planet’s resources, a contributing factor to global warming and overflowing landfill sites. Lab-grown furniture is one of many proposed solutions; others include a push for buying better quality furniture that lasts longer, increasing the use of sustainable timbers and forests, and increasing consumer awareness.

The MIT researchers are hopeful that they can overcome financial and economic barriers to scaling their work and eventually build production blueprints for lab-grown products. And with good reason. The interest in sustainable growing industries is booming. Figures published last year in Crunchbase showed that $19.8 billion was invested in agrifood tech in 2019. These included ventures from innovative food (like Impossible Foods, which raised $300 million) to agricultural biotech (like AeroFarms, which raised $100 million).

Growing awareness of unsustainable practices and their toll on the planet will continue to drive innovation in these sectors. While lab-grown furniture is a long way away, it’s another example of the incredible advances being made by science and technology, and a glimpse into a future where furniture may not be mass-produced using wasteful practices, but instead concocted entirely from plant cells, grown and shaped as far as the limits of our imaginations.

Editor in Chief of Post-Grad Survival Guide • Columnist in Marker • Words in Forge, Debugger, Future Human & more • Lets connect on LinkedIn: bit.ly/3i8wFBd

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