Nate Petre at the Alligator Head Foundation

Photo: Nate Petre
Photo: Nate Petre
Photo: Nate Petre
AHF Jamaica

Nate Petre has been TBA21–Academy's first long term Scientist in Residence. Concluding his PhD at Imperial College in London, Petre focuses on 3D printing surfboards with the use of sustainable materials, in this case, recycled ocean plastic and sargassum seaweed. Providing an ocean-friendly way to manufacture tools for sustainable engagement with the ocean, Petre strived to execute his production away from the well-equipped labs and workshops of British universities. Although ideally suited for the Carribean, where influxes of sargassum seaweed have a grave impact on the health of the shores, this project has broader implications on the use of locally abundant waste material, as well as providing an alternative, accessible and distributed way of manufacturing for local economies.
The underlying idea of the research was to build a simplified platform, something virtually anyone can assemble, thus hoping to help with the development of small industries and leaving a tangible impact on the local communities. The platform was to be independent of the location and easily rebuildable. It is a piece of machinery that people can easily see, operate and understand; not limiting the manufacturing process to the high-income part of the population. 

The main parameters of the product and manufacturing development were usability, functionality and sustainability. In full commitment to the project, Petre firstly moved the production to California in November 2017 and rebuilt the entire manufacturing platform with the help of local fishers using used fishing nets as a trial material. Later the platform had moved to a quieter, bushier part of Jamaica; to an insular environment where building, running and maintaining advanced technology is a challenge.  

The source material for 3D printing can be anything that can be plasticised. Biobased waste is in abundance, and little is used intelligently, as certain types take a very long time to biodegrade. Chicken feathers, another common waste material, can be turned into bioplastics, as well as sugar cane waste (considering Jamaica's strong rum production), coconut waste, and breadfruit. This project uses the locally abundant seaweed - which is, essentially, "very new plastic," as Petre explained, and crude oil is essentially 300 million years old seaweed. What he aims for is a positive twist on the so-called planned obsolescence: surfboards last for a limited amount of time - let's say a decade. After thorough use, this one can be crushed and put into the garden to become compostable material. 

Sargassum seaweed is an invasive species in the Carribean, where tourism is the primary source of income. Sargassum seaweed most probably originates in Brazil and Africa, growing in unchecked abundance with no solution, and ends up washed up on the Carribean shores. In addition to that, even the elementary economy of island transportation is more expensive than accessing goods on the continent; therefore, Petre sees the impact and value of his project for any small economy in a remote location.
In the course of his residency in Jamaica, Petre had collaborated with another TBA21–Academy Resident: the Swiss artist Claudia Comte, working on a series of coral-inspired sculptures made from naturally fallen local wood.  The residents have collaborated on two projects: a 3D printed surfboard fin, designed by Comte, and an underwater cacti garden - a submerge sculpture park at the bottom of the sea, populated with coral, alluding to the sensitivity of coral reefs under human impact. 
3D printed surfboard fin, designed by Claudia Comte. Photo: Nate Petre.