Charlotte de Vaulx, W’19, C’19, tells how a Passion Project grant allowed her to explore the world of 3D Printing while pursuing dual degrees with Wharton and the College.

Charlotte de Vaulx’s fascination with 3D printing and biofabrication began after listening to the Wall Street Journal’s “Future of Everything” podcast on how lab-grown organic printed materials could redefine manufacturing. Reading about biosynthetics as a potentially disruptive technology, she learned how innovators are harnessing microbes like bacteria and algae as tools to engineer biomaterial consumer products. For example, entrepreneurs, designers, and engineers are creating biodegradable shoes from lab-grown spider silk, animal-free leather from printed cells, and algae-based ink. 3D printing technology, known for customizable on-demand production, is being developed for biomaterials as well.

What particularly interests Charlotte about these technologies is the potential to design and create more sustainable closed-loop systems using renewable, biodegradable, less energy-intensive, and non-polluting products at a commercialized scale. For Charlotte, who is pursuing a dual-degree in Operations, Informations, and Decisions in Wharton and Environmental Science in the College, this represents the perfect intersection of her studies and interests — entrepreneurship, biology/earth science, and sustainability.

Through a $300 grant from the Wharton Passion Projects Program, Charlotte resolved to design and print her own bio-inspired 3-dimensional structures, through which she hopes to communicate the broad-ranging applications of 3D printing and biofabrication to her peers. Her structures, though not directly bioprinted, were inspired by tree roots and designed as branching fractals, a recurring pattern common in nature.

The Creative Process

At first, 3D printing seemed complicated and intimidating, especially without any previous design experience. Though many 3D print softwares exist that are free and open-source, the hardest part of the project for Charlotte was knowing where to start, as well as parsing through all the jargon.

She described her early process as sketching her object on paper, uploading the photo online, and using computer programs like Adobe Creative Cloud  to digitize edit, and transform her original sketch into a 3D print file. While digitizing, Charlotte spent a lot of time exploring different available CAD (Computer Aided Design) and 3D design softwares, including Photoshop, Blender, and Meshmixer. Some required coding from scratch, some let you download and merge existing shapes or files, and some let you sculpt freely as if with putty. Charlotte learned that all 3D print objects, no matter the shape, are created from tessellated faces — joined repeated triangles. Before printing the objects must be structurally sound. Luckily, the files could easily be tested and repaired using software that automatically scans and detects defects. Once the files were corrected, sending to print was as easy as uploading the file.

Charlotte’s favorite part of her Passion Project was having ownership over her designs and seeing her products from ideation to their final forms. She now views the world of 3D printing as “open and accessible if you put in the time and research,” and particularly enjoys the culture of open information sharing. Charlotte believes 3D printing will be increasingly useful in prototyping, robotics, and healthcare, perhaps even agriculture.

Biofabricated Alternatives

When she wasn’t designing and developing 3D structures, Charlotte experimented with the mycelium kits of a company called to grow her own biofabriated creations for fun. According to Charlotte, it was as easy as “baking a cake.” Each mycelium blend, combined with various substances such as hemp, grows after being fed water and flour as nutrients, just like yeast . After packing the soupy mycelium blends in growth forms (containers to shape the material as desired),she watched her creations develop for a week, finally heating the product in the oven. Charlotte enjoyed the process, noting that mycelium is cheap, easy to use, and completely biodegradable.

In a world with rapidly rising demand for materials and energy, Charlotte emphasizes the importance of working to find scalable and cost-effective sustainable alternatives to plastic, non-renewable-based products, and a global waste problem. She believes a multidisciplinary perspective is necessary in tackling these problems, which is why she decided to pursue a dual-degree.

After Wharton, Charlotte plans to pursue a career in entrepreneurship and innovation, leveraging technology for sustainable applications. She hopes to spend a few years researching key biological and chemical processes on the “scientific side” before working at a startup or starting her own business.

Posted: June 15, 2018

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