Reimagining sustainable construction:
A synthetic biology approach to insulation.
Winter is Coming and Blackouts are Looming
Energy is now a scarce resource even in wealthy countries. The combination of a worsening climate crisis together with the politicalization of energy supplies has led to pervasive energy insecurity. Due to a combination of these factors, Switzerland is anticipating unprecedented blackouts this winter when energy for home heat is most in demand.
Current Solutions Lead to more Problems
The current energy crisis has made it evident that our present energy consumption is not sustainable in particular as we necessarily transition away from fossil fuels. The largest energy expenditure by far in European households is utilized to heat and cool our homes. This use accounts for 60% of total domestic energy consumption.1 One important way to reduce energy consumption is to better insulate our houses. However, simply adding more of the current insulation materials leads to another environmental problem - insulation material waste disposal. As of 2022, greater than 90% of insulation waste from building renovation and demolition in Switzerland is either burned or ends up in landfills, further damaging our environment.2 The amount of insulation material waste is expected to quadruple over the next 25 years2. Reducing this waste accumulation, while still benefiting from enhanced building insulation, is critical to preserve our local environment and to address the growing mountain of insulation waste worldwide.
H. ydrophobic E. .coli based S. ustainable T. hermally I. nsulative A. erogel
We believe home insulation materials can be completely rethought to generate new highly efficient products that, when their end of life is reached, will not burden the environment.
Our solution, HESTIA, is a synthetic biology-based, modular, high performance insulation material. HESTIA is founded upon the excellent insulative properties of cellulose aerogel, which can be made from cellulose produced by bacteria or derived from plants. We improve upon the base properties of cellulose aerogels through two recombinant protein biofilm layers integrated with the material through cellulose binding protein domains. The first layer, composed of recombinant silk proteins derived from those of the insect green lacewing (Mallada signata), protects the aerogel from humidity. The second layer is fully customizable, enabling supplementary material augments, such as fire resistance, to be introduced through the inclusion of additional modular proteins. This design enables the generation of bespoke insulation materials that can address the unique challenges of individual housing projects, plus, being completely biodegradable, be harmlessly disposed of at the end of their utility.
Using synthetic biology, our solution aims to generate next-generation sustainable insulation materials that will save energy now and reduce the environmental impact of insulation waste in the future.
Explore our Experiments
Learn more about our protein design, protein purification and biofilm production.
Sustainable Development Impact
We assimilated Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) early in the design of our project in order to allow us to target our goals effectively. We applied to the Geneva Tringshua Initiative SDG Accelerator and were kindly granted personalized advice from the head of this organization. This helped us to objectively evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of our project plans. Throughout the progression of our project, we also worked with sustainability experts who provided us with their insight and suggested resources for us to consider and incorporate. We also discussed our Sustainable Development Impact with other iGEM teams and as part of a Swiss Parliamentary Debate about GMO regulations and the upcoming energy crisis which we organized. All of these inputs have helped improve and refine our Sustainable Development Impact.
The development, deployment, use and disposal of insulation materials constitutes a complex chain of interdependent stakeholders. In order to ensure our product appeals to everyone we sought and received feedback from the different parties involved. We consulted academic researchers who specialize in developing new building materials and insulation industry professionals at ISOVER. Further, we talked to regulators including the Swiss Federal Office of Energy as well as our local energy department. And we also talked with home owners about their desire to reduce energy usage and listened to their aspirations for the disposal of the components used in their building. All the input we gathered from stakeholders at each stage of the life of insulation materials was incorporated into the objectives of our project and was iteratively refined with their feedback to address our goal for sustainable biodegradable high-performance insulation materials.
Energy consumption in households
A framework for sustainable and circular system design: Development and application on thermal insulation materialsResources, Conservation and Recycling, vol. 154, pp. 104631