Get Ready for a World of Self-Growing and Healing “Living” Materials

New research at USC Viterbi School of Engineering seeks to upcycle waste materials by harnessing the power of microorganisms.

Anyone who grew up watching the animations of Walt Disney or Hayao Miyazaki will already be accustomed to a world where objects and materials have their own inner life, grow, heal and transform.

For most of us, that world is consigned to childhood. For Professor Qiming Wang, the living potential of seemingly inanimate matter is a daily professional reality.

As Stephen Schrank Early Career Chair in Civil and Environmental Engineering, his research taps into the power of living microorganisms to manufacture unprecedented self-healing and self-strengthening materials. Now, a $3 million Future Manufacturing Research Grant in Ecomanufacturing from the National Science Foundation is funding a groundbreaking research initiative in which Wang is co-principal investigator, in collaboration with researchers from Texas A&M University and Caltech.

The study “Sustainable Manufacturing Using Living Organisms and Agriculturally Derived Materials” is inspired by the biological systems that involve living cells in the metabolization of biomass – comparable to the process of composting. The goal is to enable 3D printing-based methods that reprocess and activate agriculturally derived waste materials, such as discarded grass and biodegradable corn plastics. The secret agents in this process? Living microorganisms, including bacteria, algae and fungi.

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