MIT Media Lab Enlists 6,500 Silkworms to 3D Print a Dome Pavilion

East, Newsletter
Tuesday, June 4, 2013
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Silkworms gather atop the pavilion (Steven Keating/Courtesy Mediated Matter)

Silkworms gather atop the pavilion (Steven Keating/Courtesy Mediated Matter)

A new pavilion created by the Mediated Matter research group at MIT’s Media Lab explores the intersection between material technology, computation, and biological and digital fabrication on an architectural scale. Inspired by the silkworm’s ability to create a 3D cocoon out of a single, 1 km thread, a team of researchers led by architect Neri Oxman created a fibrous, CNC-fabricated scaffold made from 26 polygonal panels and laid out in silk thread. They then let loose 6,500 silkworms onto the frame to fill in the gaps and reinforce the structure.

The structure’s silk armature was created by an algorithm, based on site-specific solar trajectories and research on the worms’ behavior, which was then built upon by the worms’ on-site reaction to the structure’s geometries and environmental factors, including heat, light, and density. The worms were attracted to darker and denser areas, leaving a large aperture in the pavilion’s southeast side and producing some areas thicker than others. Mediated Matter’s research with the Silk Pavilion opens up new possibilities for the creation of functionally graded material objects (think the varied, porous interior of bone as opposed to the homogeneity of concrete), fibrous systems for the construction of habitable space, and bio-synthetic structures that are capable of interacting with heir environments.

Like their (ideal) mechanical counterparts, these small, squishy 3D-printers can self-replicate. While the silkworms were removed from the pavilion before they could transform into moths, once they metamorphose, those 6,500 grubs could produce 1.5 million more, which in turn could construct 250 additional pavilions.

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