Catarina Mota isn't the typical do-it-yourself expert. Instead of making a cake in a mug and repainting kitchen cabinets, she's baking bioplastic and creating magnetic paint.
As the co-founder of openMaterials.org, Mota's work is meant to encourage us to get back in touch with making, rather than just consuming. "For some things, you still need a sterile lab," said Mota, also a TED Fellow and visiting scholar at New York University. "But we can make bioplastic at home using just a stove and some basic ingredients."
I spoke recently with Mota about why she cares about conductive ink and microcontrollers -- and why we should, too. Below are excerpts from our interview.
You've said we lost touch with materials and how things are made in the second half of the 20th century. What happened and why does it matter?
Throughout history until the end of the first half of the 20th century, people made things for two reasons: because they had to and also because we saw the appearance of the hobby. It was the golden age of DIY in the '50s. People would paint their own houses and build their own machines. Hobbies like boats, airplanes and other gadgets became common. This also had a boon due to the two World Wars. People would save money by doing things themselves. Mass production continued to grow and we became much more interested in consuming rather than making. We forgot how to make. Most of us nowadays don't think we can repair anything or make anything ourselves.
This is important for several reasons. On a more superficial level, we consume things we don't understand. We take them as they are. Even something as simple as a chair has such a profound affect on our lives. If the chair is not right, we could have back problems or be forced to sit in a certain position. That's going to affect our body and health. If you take things more complex like mobile technologies, for example, it's been shown that technologies do influence the way we think, communicate, work and play. When we don't understand how things are made, we're unconsciously shaped by those gadgets. This isn't a plot to manipulate us. It's just the way it is. We have a system in which few produce for the many. In the process, they dictate how we do pretty much everything. That's why I find it so important to find materials and technologies, so we have more control of our own life. We can make informed decisions about what we use and how to use it.
What are smart materials and how have they advanced over time?
This is a very vague category of materials. The definition I usually go with is: Materials that have one or more properties that can be changed in a controlled manner. We're talking about, for example, paint that changes to another color at a certain temperature. We can control that change. They are things like plastics that change shape when exposed to an electrical current.
A lot of of these materials, which people haven't heard about or know of only vaguely, have been around for decades. It's still very much a niche industry. There aren't many applications yet, but that's promising because we can invent applications for these materials. We can be part of this transformation process. But these are materials that one manufacturer supplies to another. We don't actually see them like we see wood and paper. In terms of evolution in the industry, there's been a lot of work done on plastics. Most of them are about solving specific problems, like a cell phone that can withstand certain temperatures. The evolution is about creating materials for certain applications. We're also seeing, on the very small scale, industry and research labs starting to look toward more mainstream applications. There is conductive paint. Someone made a poster where you could push on it and play music. We're starting to see them slowly being used more in commercial and end-user applications.
Do you expect smart materials to impact our lives more in the coming years?
I think we'll see them more and more. There are a lot of these materials in construction and architecture. The problem is they're very expensive, but like most technologies the price will go down. The other area I think we'll see more is in semi-conductors on paper. You'll be able to buy a birthday card that lights up and does all kinds of things.
You're a social scientist by trade. How did you get involved in the smart materials world?
My training is in social sciences, communication sciences to be more specific. I also studied film, so I had some contact with machines. But I was a user more than a maker. Eventually, I decided to get a master's degree in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU. It's a program focused on technology for people who don't come from a technology background. The program is focused on creative expression and collaboration in learning to learn. We'd sit until late at night and share the knowledge we had with each other. This opened my eyes for the first time to how fast we can learn if we learn from each other.
A few years after that, I met Kirsty Boyle [co-founder of openMaterials.org]. We decided we wanted to make a large-scale art installation. We wanted to use these very sophisticated materials we'd seen in an exhibit. We knew what they were and we had an idea of how they worked. But as soon as we started researching, we realized it was very hard to obtain those materials in small enough quantities at prices we could afford because we're not a manufacturer. We just wanted to make one thing. We eventually found one or two sources, but what we could buy came with no instructions. I still have on my shelf this powder that expands to four times its size when heated and mixed with some kind of paint. But I was never able to use it. I have no idea at what temperature, what kind of paint, how much. This was true for many of the materials we were buying for this project. We were experimenting almost blindly. We were aware of how much science and technology can advance when people share information with each other. We were having to go through this project, so we should share it with other people. Then they wouldn't have to start from scratch and could pick up where we left off.
Talk about openMaterials.org. How does it work and what's your goal for the website?
It's the way Kirsty and I found to share our initial experiments. That project that triggered all this, we never actually finished. We became so fascinated with materials that our focus shifted. It's a website where we and anyone who wants to join us can share information about materials. Sometimes that information is the product of our own DIY research. We don't have a fancy lab or anything. We work in a kitchen with regular glasses and spoons. Kirsty works at a university lab and I work at hacker spaces. We'll use the stove to make bioplastic and things like that. The other part of it is other people's work. There are more and more of us doing this work, so we share their research as much as possible. We also reference interesting papers and discoveries coming out of labs. It creates a database. It's a repository of information. Over the last couple of years, art and design departments began using openMaterials a lot.
I love smart materials, but I feel that now there are enough people to keep working on this. The world has some very serious problems. My vision for the future is to let others continue the smart materials route within openMaterials. My thing now is to turn to more fundamental issues that can hopefully help address problems, like how do you extract minerals from poor materials, how do you make bioplastic, how do you recycle filament.
That's a difficult question. There have been so many interesting uses. Personally, I like projects that mix everyday materials with smart materials. I love the noisy jelly project [a kit to make your own musical instrument out of agar], because of that. It's so sophisticated and so simple at the same time. Another one is basically a microcontroller on a piece of wood. Another put circuits on paper in a very artistic way. Another is by one of my students who made a BeetBox. He used beets to create a musical instrument.
Is there a smart material you'd like to see that hasn't been made yet? Is there still unfinished business for you in this space?
There's a lot of unfinished business. I get a lot of emails from students or artists who are trying to do something specific. It might be something like, 'I would like an ink that's both conductive and magnetic.' A lot of it has to do with finding hybrids between these materials to give them even more interesting properties. Some of the smart materials still have problems, like conductive material that cracks.
Photo: Catarina Mota making magnetic paint in May 2012 (William W. Ward)