Saving the environment will take every single bit of effort one can make, and a joint effort by scientists and designers is hoping to play its part in cleaning the oceans with a revolutionary new bikini design. Engineers from University of California, Riverside, have partnered with Eray/Carbajo, a design firm, to create an environmentally-friendly 3D-printed swimming suit called the Sponge Suit.
According to University of California, Riverside, the Sponge Suit is made of a carbon-based material they are calling ‘The Sponge’ which repels water while absorbing harmful contaminants. The design won first place at RESHAPE’s 2015 Wearable Technology competition.
Derived from heated sucrose, a form of sugar, The Sponge has a highly porous structure and is thought to be able to absorb “everything but water” and hold up to 25 times its own weight.
The innovative concept was designed by professor Mihri Ozkan and her husband, fellow electrical engineering professor Cengiz Ozkan, along with Ph.D. students Daisy Patino and Hamed Bay. Design studio Eray/Carbajo then transformed the idea into a wearable swimsuit; the design team, consisting of Pinar Guvenc, Inanc Eray and Gonzalo Carbajo, worked with Ozkan at her laboratory, designing the biking swimsuit around the professor’s concepts.
“The form of the Sponge Suit is inspired by the super-porous, mesh-like structure of the Sponge material. The final form of the 3D print shell was obtained through the various iterations of the same undulating form,” the team wrote. “The filler amount and the allocation were identified by creating several design alternatives, considering the form and the ergonomics of the human body, while pushing the limits in translucent swimwear design.”
The final product is made of the Sponge insert and a 3D-printed frame from a flexible plastic called elastomer. It weighs just 1.9oz, with a surface area of 38.75 square inches, and a thickness of 2mm. The Sponge insert can be reused up to 20 times without losing its absorbency, with the contaminants staying trapped in the pores of the material and not coming into contact with the wearer’s skin.
Additionally, the Sponge material will only release the contaminants it has absorbed when it’s heated to temperatures above 1,832 degrees Fahrenheit. The innovators and designers of the Sponge Suit believe that it would be relatively inexpensive to mass produce. “The Sponge itself is highly cost-efficient with the main precursor being sugar. The per-gram-cost is roughly 15 cents, a reducible cost when achieving economies of scale,” the team says.
“This design can be developed into different outfits: bathing suits, mayokini, swimming caps. Reprogrammability, recyclability, and affordability are intriguing properties of the technology, allowing room for further research and development in clean-tech wearable. We aim for a future where everyone, with any shape and form of swimming outfit, can contribute to the cleanliness of the seas by a sports activity or simply a leisurely summer vacation,” they say on the possible future of the environmentally-friendly bikini.
While experts are understandably skeptical about the effectiveness of the invention, wondering whether there would be enough wearers for the garment to make a real difference, they do not exclude cautious optimism. Chelsea Rochman, a marine ecologist and expert in ecotoxicology at University of California, Davis, says the success of the Sponge Suit will depend on how well the biking soaks up pollutants relative to other items already used in the ocean for similar purposes, such as foam surfboards and boogie boards.
The marine ecologist believes every little bit helps with cleaning the oceans, given the sheer magnitude of the problem. “It’s worth a try,” she says, “if it’s actually safe and there are healthy ways to dispose of it that make sense for waste management.”