3D-printed eco-bikini cleans the ocean as you swim

The Sponge Suit is made of porous material that cleans contaminants from the ocean, helping to make swimming an eco-friendly experience.

An ocean-cleaning sponge insert sits inside a 3D-printed elastomer frame. Eray Carbajo

The world's oceans are full of beauty, but they're also full of pollution. Industrial, agricultural and residential waste all make their way into the oceans, not to mention oil spills and waste from deep-sea mining sites.

The Sponge Suit bikini, designed by architecture and design firm Eray Carbajo, based in New York and Istanbul, in collaboration with UC Riverside electrical engineering professor Mihri Ozkan, is designed to absorb pollutants from the ocean as its wearer swims around in the sea. It just won first prize in the Reshape15: Wearable Technology Competition.

In practical terms, the suit wouldn't make much of an impact. However, it does demonstrate the effectiveness of a material designed by Ozkan and her husband, fellow electrical engineering professor Cengiz Ozkan, along with Ph.D. students Daisy Patino and Hamed Bay.

The material, on which development began four years ago, is called Sponge. It is designed for cleaning up oil and chemical spills and desalinating water. It is a water-repelling and highly porous carbon material that is light and flexible. It absorbs everything except water, and can absorb up to 25 times its own weight, depending on the density of the material absorbed.

"This is a super material that is not harmful to the environment and very cost effective to produce," Ozkan said.

The idea of adapting the material into a wearable came Eray Carbajo. The Eray Carbajo team, Pinar Guvenc, Inanc Eray and Gonzalo Carbajo, worked with Ozkan at her laboratory, designing the swimsuit around Ozkan's material.

"The form of the Sponge Suit is inspired by the super-porous, mesh-like structure of the Sponge material. The final form of the 3D print shell was obtained through the various iterations of the same undulating form," the team wrote. "The filler amount and the allocation were identified by creating several design alternatives, considering the form and the ergonomics of the human body, while pushing the limits in translucent swimwear design."

The resulting bikini is made the Sponge insert and a frame 3D printed from flexible plastic, called elastomer. It weighs just 54 grams (1.9oz), with a surface area of 250 square centimetres (38.75 square inches), and a thickness of 2mm. The Sponge insert can be reused up to 20 times without losing its absorbency, trapping the contaminants in the pores of the material, so they don't come into contact with the wearer's skin.

The precursor to the Sponge material is simple sugar. Eray Carbajo

Additionally, the Sponge material only releases the contaminants it has absorbed when it's heated to temperatures above 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,832 degrees Fahrenheit).

And it would be relatively inexpensive to mass produce.

"The Sponge itself is highly cost-efficient with the main precursor being sugar. Per gram cost of Sponge is roughly 15 cents, a reducible cost when achieving economies of scale," the team wrote.

"This design can be developed in to different outfits: bathing suits, mayokini, swimming caps. Reprogrammability, recyclability and affordability are intriguing properties of the technology, allowing room for further research and development in clean-tech wearable. We aim for a future where everyone, with any shape and form of swimming outfit, can contribute to the cleanliness of the seas by a sports activity or simply a leisurely summer vacation."

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