Bioplastic testing: Day 2

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After drying the bioplastic tests overnight it was clear that the starch based one was really interesting and much more transparent than I was able to create on my own at home during last year’s experiments. I still felt though that I would have a problem trying to get in onto my fabrics in a controlled way. (see image above – starch bioplastic is the clear/ white material in the lower petri dish.  The top dish contains the (green coloured) agar bioplastic.)

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So we decided that we should focus our attention solely on the algae based bioplastics. The samples that we had created the day before had a lovely translucency; like looking through the see through coloured plastic sweet wrappers (see image above). Unfortunately the agarose mix without the glycerol was very fine and delicate after drying out. It was brittle, prone to tearing easily and very hard to scrape off the bottom of the Petri dish. So our final experiment yesterday was to test what would happen if we added glycerol to the algarose mix. To heighten the effect Conor decided to add 4ml of glycerol to the mix.

After drying in the oven at 65degrees from 12 until 6pm and being left on the bench overnight both algae samples were dry. However as earlier stated the algarose without the glycerol was deemed unsuitable as a material for this project. The sample with added glycerol was much more interesting and when pulled slightly had a little give or stretch in the material. It was however a little sticky to the touch though.

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So on day two of our sampling programe Conor decided to work with the algarose recipe and by adding 1, 2 and 4ml of glycerol test to see which if any had more workable properties.

So we made up 3 sample batches. Before I poured the solubulised liquid into the Petri dishes I added small strips of different types of fabric to the bottom of the Petri dish. The fabric samples were a nylon fixed gauze used in screen printing, a nylon lycra.  (see image below – left hand petri dish)

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It was decided before continuing any further testing of the bioplastic with the various sculptural fabrics that it was best to see which if the recipes would work best.

Two other tests were undertaken as well on this day.

To simulate the way the fabric would be working in a sculpture lycra mesh netting was stretched over the petri dish and held in place by an elastic band. The warm (4ml glycerol) liquid painted onto the stretched fabric and set pretty quickly. As I was hoping to eventually layer up the material onto the fabric we decided to test this out by painting a second layer on top of the first. (see image above – right hand petri dish)

Finally as we had talked about the lack of flexibility with the normal algarose mix Conor suggested that if we could add bubbles to the liquid mix before it set the bubbles would create a cushion and matrix inside the material that could allow it to flex better. He suggested working with Alka selzer could give us the effect we were looking for.

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So Conor crushed some of the tablet and put it on the Petri dish and pouring the slightly cooled down liquid algarose without the glycerol onto the powder. See image for result. He did something similar when he carefully added the remaining crushed tablet to the beaker of plain algarose over the sink. As he expected it bubbled and frothed up. Both samples were put into the oven to dry.

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Results from bioplastic testing: day 2:

Tests with basic agar bioplastic recipe with 1ml glycerol – too brittle and inflexible

Tests with agar bioplastic recipe with 2ml glycerol – a little bit of give

Tests with agar biopastic recipe with 4ml glycerol – stretchy but a bit sticky

Trees of South Africa – recent visit

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Storms River, Tsitsikamma National Wildlife Park, South Africa

During a recent visit to South Africa I was taken by the incredible trees that surrounded me during my walk to the Storms River suspension bridge, part of the wonderful Tsitsikamma Wildlife Park.

Having learnt a little “tree knowledge’ from TCD tree specialist David Hackett during the 2017 College Trinity Trees I was delighted to see some similar tree species to those that I had learnt about.

A black Ironwood – a blackish gum exudes from bark wounds. Image below.

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A real Yellowwood. Image below

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A Turkeyberry tree – with branches sporting incredibly large spikes standing sentry on the tree. Image below.

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A enormously tall tree that to my limited training seem to be a birch tree.  PHOTO-2018-08-02-13-07-33

And my favorite unidentified tree, who’s roots and branches seemed to defy gravity and have a life of their own. See Image below.

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Bioplastic testing – Day one

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Conor Buckley started our bioplastic journey to develop an art material for use in the Trinity Trees Project by explaining about the cellular make up of the different base materials we would be using. This was a great help for me to understand how the material would act and react depending on what you added to it.

We stared by talking about how one would make a starch based bioplastic.

Starch bioplastic: the recipe:

9.95grams of corn starch

60ml distilled water

5ml Acetic acid (vinegar) 5% solution

5ml glycerol (a light sensitive animal fat)

Cornstarch is a complex carbohydrate called a polysaccharide. It has a polymer chain with branches. When we add vinegar to the starch and water solution it cleaves the branches from the polymer chain separating them into whats called an amalose mix i.e. the starch and vinegar solubalise in water. When you add glycerol (the plasticiser), which is like an oil, it allows the chains to slide over each other. The stiffness or flexibility of the final product depends on the amount of glycerol we add to it. The more glycerol the more plasticised it becomes.

Starch bioplastic: the method:

Add water and corn starch to a graduated beaker. Add vinegar to create amalose. Add glycerol to plasticise. Put the beaker with all the ingredients over the heat and gradually increase the temperature from 100 to 140 and up to 160 degrees over about 10-15 minutes all the time stirring the mixture.

When the mixture changes from opaque to clear it is the time to scoop it out and spread it out on the chosen dish to dry. In our case we used petri dishes. Then the dish was placed in an oven set at 65 degrees to dry. For this starch how you dry it is important. If you leave it on bench to dry over a long period of time the top layer will dry faster and form a skin. Drying in the oven in @65 would allow for the material to dry more evenly.

Conor and I were delighted with the result, which was much more opaque than the samples I had created the year before. As most of last years samples ended up white in colour when I tried to add colour I ended up with varying shades of pastel colours. I had also tried many different ways of adding colour to this bioplastic. But now thanks to Conor’s knowledge I realise that what I thought was a good idea, adding acrylic (plastic based) paint to the mix, was in fact reacting with the cellular chains and making the material more brittle.

On the down side this and last years cornstarch bioplastics were very thick, lumpy and hard to spread evenly. If I were to use it to cover elements of my sculptures we would have to spread it when it was at its most liquid form when it was really hot and sticky As it looses heat quite quickly cools and becomes more unworkable it would be a tall order to use it as a material. A really fantastic matieral but unfortunately not one that I could use.

Two handy pieces of information that Conor imparted to me that I thought useful to share are:

1. When you are trying to optimise the mechanical properties of a material change one thing at a time. You don’t change the base amount of starch, water and vinegar components only the glycerol.

2. If you want to colour a bioplastic materials it is best to use three drops of food colouring and only after all the ingredients have been solubalised. If you add the colour earlier you might not be able to see the point at which the material changes from opaque to clear indicating that it is ready to use.

The second type of bioplastic we said we would explore was an Agar based one. 

Agar is a generic term for seaweed and alginate is a made by processing a type of seaweed. The algae base material that we are using is called agarose. This is a thermoreversable material i.e. it melts in water when you heat it up, sets when cool and can be reheated to liquid form again. It is important to note that the more times one heats and cools the material the weaker the material becomes. Conor explained what happens when the agarose is heated up in water. As it is made of nano scale helical shaped chains, they unravel when heated and straighten out and then return to the helical shape when they cool down.

In our initial experiment we just used the pure agarose.

Agar bioplastic: recipe 1:

agarose

1.5 grams agar

50 ml of water

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Agar bioplastic: recipe 2: agarose and glycerol version

1.5 grams agar

50ml of distilled water

4ml of glycerol

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Agar bioplastic: the method:

Measure out the 1.5 grams of agarose. Boil distilled water. Add agarose. Stir continuously over heat for 10-15 minutes until all the agarose strands have disappeared. Pour solubalised agrose into petri dish and leave to set. If glycerol is to be added do this after the agar has solubalised and before pouring into the petri dish.

Interestingly after describing what I was looking for from a bioplastic Conor suggested that by using a paint brush when this material was hot we could paint the bioplastic onto the fabric, which would then set and dry over time.

I also wondered if this material would be flexible enough to be able to move with the fabrics i use or would it be too brittle and tear. Conor decided to try and add some gylcerol to the mixture to act like a plastisier. He decided to start off with 2ml of glycerol, which we added to the solubalised mix. We planned to leave it over night to dry to see how that would look and work.

Another really interesting idea that Conor suggested on this first day is that he wanted to try adding bubbles to the mix. By adding bubbles to the recipe without glycerol he hoped to add an extra element of flexibility. So I was asked to bring in some alka selser for our next batch of experiments.

Sister tree felled today

I am saddened to say but due to safety concerns the second sister Oregon Maple tree was felled in Trinity College Dublin today.  Many tree specialists and contractors were on hand in a six hour mammoth task of felling the second tree. It was an eventful day full of much sadness, reverence and surprises.

I will post more photographs documenting the process over the coming days.

Belated farewell to 170 year old Maple

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Image taken of the Oregon Maple

One of the oldest trees in Trinity College Dublin collapsed early on the 2nd of June 2018.

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The large Oregon Maple was and it’s sister tree opposite is one of the largest specimens of Oregon Maples to be found in Ireland or Britain. Both Maples graced the front square in Trinity College Dublin since the 1840’s.

In 2017 this tree was one of eight that were chosen to be investigated by the Trinity College Trees Team. The Oregon Maple not only formed part of the subsequent exhibition in October 2017 but was the subject matter of my performance during the exhibition opening night, which also formed part of the TCD and Science Gallery organised PROBE event.

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Images taken during the installation of the Oregon Maple artwork, part of the Trinity College Trees Exhibition October 2017.

I was informed of the demise of the Maple beside the Henry Moore sculpture while boarding a plane to South Africa via London. There was scant information at this point as to why this tree had fallen that night. Both trees had weathered Ireland’s recent storm Emma and hurricane Ophelia in 2017.

In fact there were numerous ongoing tests and safety assessments done by the diligent grounds staff and specialist contractors to asses both trees’ viability, the most recent taken about two months prior to the tree collapse. The surveys did show that both trees were diseased, the one that still stands more so than the one that fell. The tree experts estimated that the tree would definitely not be around in forty years time and regular testing of the trees was recommended.

It was a shock to all students, staff and the general public when the news of the tree’s collapse became known to all. None more to me as I boarded numerous planes to South Africa only returning a week ago. Numerous times I thought and spoke of the fallen tree to my family. I felt a deep sadness that such a majestic enormous seemingly invincible tree had collapsed under it’s own weight.

As I was incommunicado for such a long time I was unable to visit Trinity College until the middle of last week. I heard there had been a huge outpouring on social media and I visited the twitter page, which was alight for days after the collapse with numerous comments of sadness, many past students, staff and the general public sharing photographs and memories relating to the tree. Numerous articles also appeared online and in the newspapers.

During my visit to Trinity College last week it really brought it home to me how huge this tree was and the enormity of the empty void where the tree had stood for so long. See below an image of the tree stump surrounded by patchy damaged grass. In the background it’s sister tree stands alone now. All are aware that this tree is now in a very precarious position, especially due to Ireland’s ongoing drought making the less flexible due to a low water content. I decided to take a photo of the remaining Oregon Maple as I know a decision on it’s fate will be taken soon.

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As to the future direction of the 2018 Trinity College Trees project who’s focus is solely on these two Oregon Maples it is a little up in the air at the moment. The scientific and artistic premises for the project still remain valid but the resultant artwork concepts must now be revisited, revised and be flexible enough to respond to the fragility and shifting nature of the stories of these two trees and their place in this world.

Bioplastics with Conor Buckley; an Introduction

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On embarking on the 2018 Trinity Trees project I knew I wanted to explore in detail more about bioplastics.  I was and still am really interested to see if a specific version can be used successfully as an art material in the upcoming 2018 Trinity College Trees Exhibition. Having spent a few frustrating weeks compiling lots of samples and not quite understanding what and how much of each ingredient to add into the mix I decide to enlist the help of Conor Buckley of TCD. Conor very kindly agreed to guide me in the development of a bioplastic material for the 2018 Exhibition.

Prof. Conor Buckley

During May 2018 we met in the biochemistry lab in the Parsons building as it had all the equipment we would need to experiment and make the bioplastic material. On this first day on our journey of bioplastic experimentation Conor and I talked a lot about these exciting materials called bioplastics.

Bioplastic is a layman’s’ term for using natural materials to make plastic. Bioplastics can be starch, algae or gelatin based to name the most common forms. In science terms the final bioplastic material is called a hydrogel.

Conor’s told me a little about his area of expertise, which is in making hydrogels into specific shapes and then implanting cells into these shape. The cells grow in this medium and form a matrix within the shape creating new living tissue. This is commonly know as cell tissue engineering.

Conor is not new to working with artists on unusual projects. He was involved in the Science Gallery’s exhibition called Victimless Leather in 2008 and 2011. Victimless Leather created by artist Oran Catts was a prototype of a stitch-less jacket, grown from cell cultures into a layer of tissue supported by a coat shaped polymer layer.  See image below.  

In the next blog on Bioplastics I will outline some of the tests Conor and I undertook in May 2018.

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