Believe it or not, plankton is about to change your life. Meet Cocoon_FS: the world’s first featherweight, phytoplankton inspired, thunderstorm-proof, floating and prefabricated structure. The game changing invention’s self-supporting shell is composed of fiber reinforced polymers (FRP), and the entire structure weighs just over 1,500 pounds, making it easy to move from place to place.
Cocoon_FS was created when POHL Architekten, a groundbreaking German architecture firm, joined forces with PlanktonTech, a research organization which studies the shells of certain kinds of plankton to create more efficient and sustainable materials. It’s interesting that PlanktonTech’s first big innovation is a durable, transient home, especially since the word “plankton” derives from a Greek word meaning “wanderer.”
Founded in 2008, PlanktonTech is one of the latest offshoots of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Science by the Helmholtz Society, Germany’s largest scientific organization. The research institution is committed to understanding the evolutionary mechanisms which have allowed marine plankton to develop an optimum shell design. Diatoms–one of the most common types of phytoplankton–have shells that are incredibly light, durable and flexible.
Diatoms, or single-cell algae that have walls made of silica, are a type of phytoplankton most commonly studied by PlanktonTech. Over 100,000 species of diatoms exist, each with its own unique shell geometry. And boy, are they tiny. Diatoms usually measure between 20 and 200 microns in diameter or length. For those less science-minded, a U.S. dime is 1.35 millimeters thick.
In spite of their slightness, the diatoms produce about 40% of the earth’s oxygen through their photosynthetic activities. Compare that to the Amazon Rainforest, which provides about 20% of the earth’s oxygen, and their productive power is truly astonishing. There are a lot of these guys, and they’re just waiting to be studied.
For those whose shells are studied–mainly centric and radially-symmetric diatoms–PlanktonTech scientists use microtechnology to photograph these miniscule organisms and analyze them.
After that, scientists translate those patterns into a 3D model.
PlanktonTech then studies the models in order to mimic their design in their own work, and they don’t plan on stopping with the Cocoon_FS. So far, PlanktonTech’s most successful advances have been in the production of materials made from spinning special fibers, created through polymer synthesis.
They’ve also experimented with resin/laminate coatings and injections to create materials like the plankton shells they’re studying (re: incredibly strong materials that don’t sacrifice flexibility, and ones that are durable without any unnecessary weight). A car built from these these super materials would have a very high fuel economy, without sacrificing consumer safety.
Once perfected, these plankton-inspired materials will allow for the production of lightweight materials to be used in an array of fields, ranging all the way from civil engineering to medicine. For example, these tools will help increase the energy efficiency and durability of cement, tarmac and other commonly used paving materials, as wxell as for creating light and durable body armor, and better surgical tools and prosthetic limbs.
By observing just a tiny percentage of these microscopic organisms, we’ve made huge advances in human technologies. We still have much more to learn from these little guys.