RMIT: Biodesign: Students create award-winning PPE made from aquatic weed

“Aegis” is a protective gown for hospital use made from Cumbungi, a native Australian aquatic weed that has antimicrobial properties.

Created by a team of Master of Design Innovation and Technology students at RMIT University, the project won the “Best in Category Award in Student Design” at the Premier’s Design Awards.

At a time when the huge turnover of medical personal protective equipment (PPE) is raising concerns about waste and recycling, the need for sustainable solutions has never been greater.

Student Charlotte McCombe and recent graduates, Tanuj Kalra and Jui Deepak Apte, came up with the winning design during a studio that challenged students to find solutions to current environmental issues through biodesign.

Master of Design Innovation and Technology students have designed an award-winning medical gown “Aegis” made from the aquatic weed, Cumbungi.Master of Design Innovation and Technology students have designed an award-winning medical gown “Aegis” made from the aquatic weed, Cumbungi.
“Our first challenge was to explore materials made from waste products so we could repurpose things that we have in excess, including weeds,” McCombe said.

The team was researching different materials that could have starch extracted and turned into bioplastic and came across Combungi, also known as Bulrush, an aquatic weed that is fibrous and has an antimicrobial jelly in its leaves.

“The plant has been used by Indigenous cultures for thousands of years as a key food source and material to make mats, baskets and wound dressings,” McCombe said.

“So after looking at these properties, how it’s been used for medicinal purposes in the past, and in the wake of COVID, we came up with the idea of developing a biodegradable PPE.”

McCombe said being introduced to design innovation has inspired her to pursue a career that uses design to make a positive difference in the world.

“The power of design is exciting and such an interesting way to think,” she said.

“I found our studies focused a lot more on coming up with tangible solutions and alternative approaches, rather than just problems, which makes it a really interesting area.

“It’s amazing to see the growing demand for design across so many areas and the value it can add to anything from designing charities to designing regenerative cities.

“I’m now really interested in the intersection between environmental or regenerative design and social design and would love the opportunity to work as a service designer in the future.

Dr Ollie Cotsaftis, an Industry Fellow and lecturer in RMIT’s School of Design who led the studio, says he finds it rewarding to pass on his passion for biodesign to the next generation.

“This kind of work in biomaterials is at the forefront of design innovation, and industry is finally starting to take notice,” he said.

“Working at RMIT for the past five years has been rewarding as I’ve been able to research this area and also teach the next generation of designers how to think in this way.

“Years ago when I was first studying in architecture, I found the lack of sustainable practice in that field frustrating, so I shifted disciplines and completed a Master of Biotechnology as well as a PhD in genomics, before moving back to design.”

Cotsaftis said skills like biodesign and living architecture were becoming increasingly important.

“These bio-based practices allow us to grow our world rather than mining it to extract resources, and using biomass is a great way to be more sustainable in our approach to design and fabrication,” he said.

For this reason, Cotsaftis says he is pushing his students to focus on creating a real and practical difference.

“In this biodesign studio we’re not only looking at the practice of biodesign and biological approaches to design and fabrication, but we have a big focus on creating impact,” he said.

“ Wherever I can, I try and get the students’ projects to go beyond the life of the studio and ask them to think about how these concepts could work in industry.”