How inert matter becomes life: the story of soil and synthetic life forms

Resource / How inert matter becomes life: the story of soil and synthetic life forms

By Gemma Adams / 08 May 2017

In her TED Talk, Professor Rachel Armstrong explains how the story of soil embodies the transition from inert to living matter - and how this can be applied to other synthetic materials, in architecture for instance. 

The Earth has acquired soil over the millennia: a living web of relationships that will eventually grow old and die. Plants take root in the rich chemical medium and bind the particles together to attract animal life. Soil harbours fungi and bacteria that break down the bodies of dead creatures and turns them into more soil. In fertile areas it may take fifty years to produce a few centimeters of soil but in harsh deserts it can take thousands of years. Once soil is eroded, it is completely destroyed and is effectively lost forever. 

The possibility of artificially engineering soils creates the opportunity to transform artificial landscapes into places that can attract nature. Gardeners already select rich combinations of loam, compost and fertilizer to produce blooming plants but they transport them from other areas of soil production rather than nurturing them in situ.  Is it possible to create an artificial matrix that performs the work of soil? An experiment that explored the possible evolution of a soil matrix was conducted during the Hylozoic Ground installation, an architectural installation by Philip Beesley, at the Venice Architecture Biennale, 2010. Iron, was passed through reactive gels in a chemical process called the Liesegang Ring reaction, which occurs naturally under certain geological conditions. This dynamic process, driven by gravity and diffusion, produced layers of complex materials over the three-month period of the installation. The process of separating the homogenous gel into layers of different colors and thicknesses was the first stage towards creating an artificial soil.  Much work still needs to be done before the gel could be functionally likened to a soil. It would, for example, need to contain air filled cavities, organisms and be capable of compost production. However, these first experiments suggest that a synthetic matrix could potentially provide a supportive, evolving infrastructure for life - possibly a web of life forms and ecologies, that are also synthetic. 

What might the implications of this be? What related resources have you seen?

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