COLUMN | Mother Nature Shipyards – growing workboats [The Bow Wave]

It will probably come as no surprise that the writer of a technology column is interested in science fiction. One of the sci-fi tropes that has popped up here and there over the years is the idea of a “grown” spaceship.

Anyone who happened to see a small movie in the 90s by the title of Independence Day might remember that the alien fighter planes were said to be, “of biological origin”. The TV show Farscape featured a crew who travelled upon the Leviathan-class ship Moya, which at one point even gave birth to a new ship. And the Wraith, the rubber-faced enemy of the human heroes of Stargate Atlantis travelled the stars on their organic warships.

All of which leads me to ask, could we grow a ship?

This question leads into other follow up questions of course. Does “grow” mean just the hull, does it mean different parts are grown separately and then assembled? Does guided growth count? What about a biological structure that is then coated in something synthetic?

As far as guided growth there are several analogues already in this world, with perhaps the most famous being the square watermelons of Japan. Cubic in shape, these watermelons are grown in boxes that force the growing fruit to fit the confines available to it. Could this method be used to grow say, a small dinghy or a canoe?

Something with tougher skin than a watermelon would be preferable, perhaps a pumpkin, placed in a mould that looks like two dinghies stuck together, top-to-top. After a period of time, probably years, this fruit will have occupied the space and grown within the constraints set and after having the two sides of the mould removed, the pumpkin, aside from being quite enormous, would be cut in half, have the “meat” scooped out and you would then be left with two hulls.

The type of pumpkin or fruit could probably be genetically modified for tougher skin, larger growth size or faster growth etc. During the growth phase the root system of the plant would be in a hydroponic setup with various growth enhancers being fed to speed up growth or alter the skin and flesh characteristics of the final product.

Once grown and cut, the skin would need to be preserved in some way to prevent it rotting but this is unlikely to be the point that makes or breaks the project.

A different example of guided growth is that used in the living root bridges found in the Indian state of Meghalaya where locals have made bridges to cross streams and ravines from the roots of rubber fig trees. Beginning with roots from trees on each side of the gap being entangled into a thin cable, over many years more roots are added and the whole thing ends up becoming shaped with a floor path and sides.

In recent years, in an effort to speed up the process, some locations have started using wire cables as an initial frame and have wound and intertwined the root systems into the metal. This has resulted in the bridge being able to support greater weights sooner and more readily becoming usable.

These living roots are unlikely to be able to form a complete hull, but could these guided roots be used to grow the skeleton of a hull, forming the stringers to which wood or composite plates are attached? Obviously in this scenario, as with the pumpkin dinghy, time becomes a big factor with customers having to wait years for a deliverable product.

The first cultured hamburger ready for cooking

So if time is a factor, but you want to stick with a boat of biological origin, the invention of “culture” grown meat could be what you’re after. With funding from a number of tech billionaires the process of growing “meat” in a vat is on its way to the commercialisation stage that would allow for large volumes to be grown quickly.

Whilst the idea of building a boat out of some filet mignon might sound farcical, think about how meat is structured. Meat, or more specifically muscle, is a very strong and resilient material with good properties in both tension and compression and is almost a natural composite in itself.

The vat grown product that is for eating is unlikely to be suitable for the product I’m thinking about but as with the moulded pumpkin idea there is likely to be different “breeds” of vat meat that are going to have a higher sinew fibre count or other quality that makes it more suitable for construction purposes, in much the same way that different composites and metals are suitable for different purposes too.

Instead of using composites to replicate the evolved strengths and capabilities that we see in nature, why not turn nature to our advantage and let it do the work for us.

Perhaps there is a naval architecture department at a university that might want to experiment with one of these ideas at a smaller scale? A 30cm long pumpkin dinghy shouldn’t take too long to grow.

Have you got any ideas on how to grow a fleet of work boats? Feel free to contact me at [email protected]