Erco Lai's profile

Accretion - Mineral Formation #2

Mineral Formation ─ Accretion 
Material research 2020

What can industrial design harvest from the geo-process of mineral formation and develop new making methods by mimicking in the plausible future that creates symbiosis with Earth?

Inspired by nature, I am researching materials and trying to create processes by mimicking nature, precisely, geographic mimicking, which could radically change the way we make objects or try to challenge the mainstream manufacturing system, by "growing" things like Earth. While studying geomorphology, I was fascinated by natural processes like dripping by gravity, decomposing by rain, evaporating by the sun, and shaping by the wind; by studying minerals, petrification, crystallization to accretion are the promising processes. The experimental material/process research expands the possibility of future production.​​​​​​​
I started to duplicate the process of "Biorock" in a simplified setting: Firstly, I collected the seawater at Zuiderstrand, Den Haag. Then, I used a glass cup as the container for the electrolysis and two 1.5v batteries (connected in series) as power-source. The result was so minimal that it was hard to see. However, there was a nuance that can prove that the idea of this setting is working.

"Biorock" is a technique that help to grow artificial coral reefs faster by electro-accumulation, and create steady infrastructure from conductive materials, such as steel, also electro-fields to protect from environmental stress, developed by Wolf Hilbertz in 1979. Limescale is a hard chalky deposit formed in kettles, pipes and boilers. Inside the design of a boiler, is a sacrificial anode rod to help capture the minerals during the process. The both processes are basically the same: the calcium ions within proper condition form a stony substance. 

From the experience using the cup of seawater, I realized there are limited elements in a cup of seawater compared to the ocean where coral reefs grow. There, resources are basically flowing infinitive. To enlarge the result in my setting in the limited volume of seawater, I needed extra ingredients. Coral reefs use mostly calcium of the sea to grow so the ingredient I need is something containing calcium, like seashells, limestone or vitamin.
The experiment of duplicating the mineral-growing process went well after adding the seashell's powder in. Adding extra ingredients opens a new possibility of variables on which the whole experiment is built. The ingredients added include seashells, eggshells, white shell sand for birds(schelpenzand) and limescale from kettles. In addition, the ingredient also needs acids to dissolve and I have tried vinegar, citric acid, hydrochloric acid(zoutzuur) and rainwater.(Luckily, rainwater can dissolve almost nothing.) From these numerous combinations, I find limescale and seashell are the most promising.

Limescale forms gradually around the edge and bottom when tap water flows through pipes and appliances. Interestingly, using limescale as a building material can be traced back to Roman empire. On the other hand, seashells play an important role in the composition of limestone. In the Sibbergroeve, Netherlands, the limestone extracted from the underground sometimes contain fossils and shells in it. By Investigating the limescale and limestone, we can understand how human-systems and geo-systems intertwine and how this hybrid system can benefit us as an eco-friendly and ambient process, and a sturdy yet easy-to-reuse material. However, most of the spontaneous process takes time, from months to decades, and if we need to apply it to future manufacturing methods, we need to consider the making time and fulfillment of needs. Therefore, the idea of using electrolysis to speed up the process has an irreplaceable value for the experiment. 

In the industries, the difference between electroplating and electroforming is if the deposited material remains on the cathode or not. Based on the experiment, I will elaborate on the idea of electroforming: In my definition, the main difference between electroplating and electroforming is thickness. By this definition, electroplating is a thin, even layer of mineral on the object/surface, and the mineral coating's shape is roughly the object's shape; electroforming is growing a thicker mineral layer and forming a new shape on the object. 

Interestingly, the electric field intensity affects the shape of the mineral accretion layer. Thus, the result of electroforming can be regarded as the 'freezing' of an object's electric field. Therefore, if a computer can simulate the electric field from an object's shape and power supply, I should be able to predict the shape of electroforming, if, in a further stage, I can control the electric field in some way and I can control the form.


A. Neo scholar's stones  
Today's metal hardware is tomorrow's sculpture. 
Scholar's stone is the natural limestone from lakes. Due to its unique shape, people will regard it as a sculpture and a symbol connecting nature and human. As for my approach, I imagine what metal hardware-the archetype of mainstream making system-can be within the process. Furthermore, this new hybrid object can represent the next phase of industrial system, growing objects like minerals. 

B. Island making
After the electroplating/electroforming experiment, I propose to work with Earth in two steps: phase I, observing the geo-process and recurring the process as a practice in a simplified setting; phase II, finding the connections between geo-process and human-process, and using it to include the Earth in the manufacturing process. For instance, within my experiment, phase I is setting up an electroplating factory in an urban area as the way of duplicating Nature; phase II is setting the manufacturing process on the ocean as the idea of outsourcing to Nature. By using the idea of outsourcing, we can regard Earth as our manufacturing partner. 
Phase I: Duplicating the Nature 
In this stage, the setting in the urban area is not only a finetuning practice of the process but also a demonstration of this new type of manufacturing process to the public. This in-situ method can lead to diverse textures, products or properties and, moreover, it can be an alternative method to the globalized producing system. Thinking about 3D-printing, this method can just use the tap water as the resource to produce things. Thus, developing a 3D-mineral-printing can be an option. In the urban zone, the electroplating factory will use tap water as input, in particular areas, it can use ground water or sea water, because the output technically is demineralized water. It is a positive side-effect that the factory can also provide purified water for the public, compared to the 'traditional' electroplating factory. ​​​​​​​
Phase II: Outsourcing to Nature
After the establishment of phase I in urban areas, this stage is quite crucial and might take a longer time. In short, we include oceans into the manufacturing line of electroforming and, by 'outsourcing' to the ocean, building up a partnership with Earth. Consequently, what to produce in the co-working factory should be more flexible because the urban factory will take the responsibility of fulfilling the public needs. Here we can experiment with slow-production. In this phase, we should focus more on the material cycle and to produce for the future, or to produce things in a long-term plan.

As for the form language, the shapes are created by part humans, part Earth, and for designers, these are new parameters to consider now, slightly changing from various locations, seasons and timespan. By working with environments as partners, it can be described as a new design principle, ”form follows Gaia”. This creates a fresh thinking for designers that focus on interaction with the Earth, Gaia and harvesting/incubating the objects from the environment. 

What will we need in the plausible future? Based on the present climate breakdown and sea level rise, we may need islands. Hence, we can try to produce islands by outsourcing electroforming to the ocean. Because this will take decades or even longer, this project should start as soon as possible. Although, this is solely one type of manufacturing method, it shows a possibility of working with Earth as a partner. With this practice, I understand that speculation can help to explore and to rethink long-term manufacturing methods by mimicking geo-processes. It is said we can see further when we stand on the shoulders of giants. Thus, it is the time to stand on the shoulder of Gaia.​​​​​​​

Advisor: Esmee Geerken
Material research in 2020
@KABK, Master Industrial Design
Accretion - Mineral Formation #2

Accretion - Mineral Formation #2