AMPHIBIO: designer develops 3D printed hydrophobic gills for humans to breathe underwater

While many innovative designers are looking for ways to slow the environmental destruction of our planet, some are looking ahead to come up with products that could serve humankind when climate change consumes the earth. Biomimicry designer Jun Kamei from the RCA-IIS Tokyo Design Lab falls into the latter category as he has designed a 3D printed amphibious garment which enables humans to breathe under water.


(Photo: Jun Kamei)

The project, called AMPHIBIO, is essentially a 3D printed wearable gill (the respiratory organ of fish and most amphibians) made from a special hydrophobic material. AMPHIBIO, says Kamei, was inspired by the rising sea levels across the globe which will potentially affect up to 3 billion people. In short, Kamei envisions a future where humans will live even closer to water and will have to adapt to more amphibious lifestyles.

“Many of my previous works take Nature for inspiration,” the designer told us. “I was particularly interested in water diving insects which can survive under water by virtue of a gill. At the same time, I wanted to use this project to raise our awareness on how our urban environment will change in the next 100 year due to global warming.”

Realized in collaboration with the Royal College of Art, AMPHIBIO combines Kamei’s expertise in materials science and biomimicry design to create a wearable gill structure that supports underwater breathing by replenishing oxygen from the water and dissipating carbon dioxide that builds up in the gills. It’s a system inspired by water diving insects which can breathe underwater thanks to a thin layer of air trapped on their superhydrophobic skin surface which acts as a gas exchanging gill.

Notably, the innovative hydrophobic material developed by Kamei for his project is compatible with 3D printing processes. A video of a 3D printed prototype of the gill shows the structure “breathing” when air is pumped into it when it is submerged in water.

Still, to be viable for human use, Kamei says he must create a much larger gill structure, which 3D printing will be critical for. “The current prototype of the gill requires a huge surface area to be able to support human oxygen consumption,” he explains. “32 meters square in theory, probably up to 80 meters square when put in practice.”

“Therefore, the gill needs to be ergonomic around the body, with a wide surface area,” Kamei adds. “Such shapes are very intricate and need to be modelled using parametric/generative design. The 3D printability of the material is really important because it will allow the gill material to be shaped as modelled, something that is difficult with other traditional fabrication methods.”

The phase of Kamei’s research will be focused on creating a larger AMPHIBIO prototype which could feasibly support underwater breathing on a human scale. Ultimately, the goal is to develop the material so it could alloy humans to stay underwater for longer periods of time than free diving and with less equipment than scuba diving.

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