Materials for the Carbohydrate Economy

Detail of the wheat straw tile facade of the Vanke 2049 Pavilion, Shanghai

One of the most significant future transformations in the material sphere will be the development of a carbohydrate economy. This will be a global economy based primarily on renewable material feedstocks—as opposed to our current economy, which is founded largely on the consumption of nonrenewable feedstocks like fossil fuels.

David Morris of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance reminds us that we used to have a carbohydrate economy: two hundred years ago, Americans consumed two tons of vegetables for every ton of minerals; but thirty-five years ago, we consumed eight tons of minerals for every ton of vegetables. Cambridge professor Michael Ashby has also chronicled humanity’s global journey towards a near-total dependence on nonrenewable materials. The implications of this trajectory are clear—by definition, one cannot base a future primarily on nonrenewable resources.

Despite our near-total reliance on nonrenewable feedstocks, however, the situation is gradually changing. Many countries now mandate biofuel use, for example. Bioplastics are quickly replacing petroleum-based plastics in many applications, vegetable-based inks and oils are becoming more commonplace, and agricultural products are diversifying. These changes, which I’ve outlined in more detail below, are exerting a direct influence on the design disciplines.

Increasing renewable feedstocks

The first necessary transformation towards a carbohydrate economy will involve the expanded development of renewable resources, including both agricultural and forest-based products. This will include a rapid increase in the production of biopolymers for a variety of uses—from simplistic substances like packaging and films to complex products like microprocessors and composite panels for automobiles. Wood will also be processed in new ways that enhance its durability and functionality, and an increased number of mutant hybrids formed by the merging of wood and plastic will appear.


Shrilk, the Wyss Institute’s insect cuticle-inspired polymer that outperforms aluminum.

Plant-based feedstocks exhibit two benefits over other renewable resources: biomass is a natural store of energy and carbon, and it can be made into tangible products. However, significant challenges impede the rapid industrialization of biomass resources, including increased competition with food and energy markets, unsustainable harvesting practices, and the need to create more incentives for farmers. Considering these impediments, we must practice a thoughtful and balanced approach towards the expansion of bio-based feedstocks.

Closing resource loops

As the cradle-to-cradle model advocates, the carbohydrate economy will necessitate the closure of gaps in material life cycles, especially with technical nutrients. Materials like metals and plastics typically require less energy and resources to recycle, compelling us to treat all technical nutrients as food for new materials.

“Although our consumption of virgin mineral resources continues to escalate, so does the number of ingenious applications of recycled waste”

Although our consumption of virgin mineral resources continues to escalate, so does the number of ingenious applications of recycled waste. Many of these applications greatly extend the first lives of products—such as countertops made from discarded household containers, messenger bags fabricated from vinyl billboard facings, or wall panels made from waste bottle glass.

Husque, a composite material made from discarded macadamia nut shells

Husque, a composite material made from discarded macadamia nut shells.

Biological nutrient waste is also a critical feedstock for new materials, and can help offset accelerating demands for virgin biomass. Like the trend towards functional upcycling seen in technical nutrient cycles, waste biomass can be incorporated into products whose lives greatly outlive the materials’ initial uses. Examples include insulating panels made from crop waste such as buckwheat husks or cottonseed hulls, tiles made from discarded coconut shells, and furniture generated from waste paper.


Relocalization involves a reassessment of local resources and material practices in a post-petroleum world. Based on the idea of glocalization—a term derived from the Japanese dochakuka, which describes the adaptation of global farming practices to local contexts—relocalization seeks active reengagement with local resources and material knowledge.

“In addition to the transportation energy savings offered by resources that are close-at-hand, a renewed evaluation of preindustrial material practices can enlighten the creation of new products”

In addition to the transportation energy savings offered by resources that are close-at-hand, a renewed evaluation of preindustrial material practices can enlighten the creation of new products. Examples include air-purifying paint produced from powdered washi paper and local pigments in Japan, or new masonry wall assemblies inspired by the historic Chinese practice of repurposing bricks and tiles from local demolished buildings.

Washi-laminated glass, an old material technology made new

Washi-laminated glass, an old material technology made new.

Relocalization also encourages vigorous development of network-based digital fabrication methods. With the increased affordability and widespread distribution of rapid prototyping technologies such as three-dimensional printing, designers can readily upload product design files and processing instructions to online manufacturing websites. These design files are then sent to qualified fablabs located near the customer and manufactured there with local resources. This method promises a tremendous reduction in the shipping costs incurred by our current, long-distance global distribution system.

Optimizing energy

A future of expensive fossil fuels will require innovative methods for enhancing energy effectiveness. New products and systems that harness and store reliable sources of local, renewable energy will play an important role in powering the carbohydrate economy. These products will rely upon both technical feedstocks such as silicon as well as living materials like algae. Examples include tiny spherical photovoltaic cells that harness light energy from all directions and biophotovoltaic fuel cells that derive energy from moss.

Moss Table, an example of biophotovoltaic furniture that powers interior lighting

Moss Table, an example of biophotovoltaic furniture that powers interior lighting.

Low energy lighting strategies will also proliferate as a means to reduce electricity consumption. Energy efficient sources like LEDs or natural sunlight, coupled with efficient light propagation materials like multilayered optical films or fiber optic strands, will enable the deployment of intelligent, self-powered products that reduce reliance on the electrical grid. Light-optimizing systems such as mirror ducts and light pipes can also reduce the energy footprints of buildings.

Imbuing Intelligence

Not all materials in a bio-based, relocalized economy will be primitive or “low-tech.” Responsive materials and systems will add critical monitoring capability and material longevity within a reimagined constructed environment. Smart products capable of tracking local environmental changes will make the invisible visible—an especially important feature when addressing concerns like air and water quality or hidden stresses in critical infrastructure. Autonomic materials capable of self-protection and repair will add years of life to products that experience heavy use, such as self-healing polymers for athletic equipment or self-repairing concrete for roadbeds.

Decker Yeadon’s autonomic, light-regulating Homeostatic Facade System

Decker Yeadon’s autonomic, light-regulating Homeostatic Facade System.

The propagation of smart materials will facilitate the production of multifunctional, interactive surfaces that emulate the operation of natural organisms. This is particularly important for critical boundary surfaces such as vehicular bodies or building facades. The integration of a variety of responsive materials within compact, smart assemblies promises to optimize material resources, reduce energy requirements, and augment the capabilities of critical surfaces.

A New Foundation

The realization of this new material milieu will require significant transformation. As David Morris says, “We may be changing the very material foundation of industrial economies.” The carbohydrate economy won’t happen overnight, but it is already underway. Moreover, once this new economy has matured, it will define our future reality. It is therefore important that designers understand the imminent material transformations in order to lead, rather than follow, the inevitable change.

About Blaine Brownell
Blaine is assistant professor and co-director of the Master of Science program in Sustainable Design at the University of Minnesota School of Architecture.
> More about Blaine Brownell

Hello Materials exhibitionAbout the Hello Materials exhibition
Experience fascinating examples of present and future materials and gain an insight into what they will mean to society and the individual. Visit the exhibition between the 2nd of April and the 21st of September 2012.
> Visit for more information about the Hello Materials exhibition

3 responses to “Materials for the Carbohydrate Economy

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