Blue Ceramics is a modular system of 4D printed ceramic tiles for restoring seagrass meadow ecosystems. Seagrass meadows are twice as efficient as forests at capturing and storing carbon, but over the last two decades they have been increasingly disappearing.

my role

Design Researcher, Systems Designer

collaborators

Kylon Chiang, Ofri Dar, Dr. Lining Yao, Dr. Jessie Jarvis

my role

Jan 2021- Oct 2021

outcome

overview

A key challenge in seagrass restoration is the lack of conservation tools for restoration experts and scientists. I led a team of industrial and computational designers in collaboration with marine scientists to co-design an intervention strategy for seagrass meadow restoration efforts.

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presenting research outcomes
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morphing ceramic field test prototypes

We developed a new smart material using ceramics and 4D printing methods. Ceramics is a natural material meaning we can leverage the fabrication and application, with its destruction within the same ecosystem. After a positive response from coastal restoration experts, I am currently working with a marine scientist to field test the intervention.

research

Compared to coral reefs, little design or research attention focuses on the humble seagrass. We used iterative contextual inquiry and participatory design methods to identify restoration solutions. We synthesized knowledge about key challenges and form constraints from the expert interviews and literature reviews to define our design impact and opportunity space.

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findings

When a seagrass meadow system starts to decline, it usually happens in small patches releasing sediment and seeds --making the water cloudy. These are known as “cold-spots” and decrease meadow resiliency causing habitat loss.

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participatory ideation

I adapted a participatory design research protocol for developing IoT products for seagrass meadow systems. I paired with two different experts in coastal restoration to “live sketch” the intervention form surfacing their deep scientific knowledge and translating it into possible designs.

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concept 1

A tile network that mimics how marshes naturally trap sediment and seeds

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concept 2

An underground grid to provide a stable structure for seagrass roots in strong currents

These sketches served as the initial constraints for the form design. Working with an industrial designer, I helped further iterate on the form design.

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current iteration - bottom right

manufacturing

We started prototyping with hand-building and grooving before moving to 3D printing and CNC grooving. Generating hundreds of test tiles, we methodically tested and refined the methods for fabricating morphing ceramics.

3d printing

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cnc grooving

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Morphing ceramics uses the tension created by joining two types of clay with differential shrinkage rates. When fired they morph depending on the groove density.

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no grooves
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5mm grooves
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3mm grooves

Different clay bodies have different levels of shrinkage, plasticity, and firing requirements. I developed a testing protocol and firing tests for establishing the material properties of different clay bodies.

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test tiles of different clay bodies

prototyping

We built an environmental simulation in Unreal to prototype the deployment of the intervention —conveying the intervention goals, and form details to scientists, designers, and the general public.

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Field testing is a labor intensive process. We also prototyped design details that would affect deployment such as sediment interaction, stability, and seed rooting.

result

Blue Ceramics design targets cold-spots at different levels to reduce erosion and seed loss through sediment traps. The overall system is designed to increase seagrass meadow resiliency at different levels of scale to aid rehabilitation efforts.

“I have been working with seagrass restoration for a long time and we didn’t come up with anything like this. Just having something different to try is really exciting to me”

― Coastal plant ecologist on our intervention design

system level impact

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Provide intermediate habitat and breeding grounds for small organisms

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Facillitate better conditions for meadow regrowth and system restoration

macro level impact

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Reduce current force and seed loss by increasing surface topology

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Prevent erosion and reduce sediment levels by increasing surface coverage

micro level impact

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stackable

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modular

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conclusion

Blue Ceramics brings a new lens on collaboration across disciplines by using familiar design methodologies to target nature instead of humans. I hope this work broadens the conversation around the potential for design to bring about more sustainable, reciprocal futures for both plants and humans.

next steps

Field Testing — initial testing will focus on mapping sediment interaction with the form and its effect on seagrass (zostera marina) regrowth and seed retention off the coast of North Carolina.
Manufacturing — developing a digitally controlled subtractive manufacturing method for scaling the manufacturing process

acknowledgements

I am forever grateful to Dr. Lining Yao for believing in and guiding this project. I learned so much during my time in the Morphing Matter Lab. I am also grateful to Dinesh Patel, Jianzhe Gu, and Kexin Lu for lending their expertise in materials science, morphing matter, and computational design.

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