Research, Material Study
Nov 2022 - Present

If you stop someone on the street somewhere in the state of São Paulo and ask, “What’s a Bagaceira?” it will be difficult to predict what sort of answer they will throw back at you. Typically, you won’t get a definition; instead, somebody will put you into a context - a wild and sweaty party that goes on until dawn, or the rough and blinding hangover that follows. It could also refer to my dry and tangled up-do, a complicated and uncomfortable situation, a woman who is bad-ass, or someone of low class. The word is alive; it sparks emotion, memories, and strong reactions—both good and bad. Linguistically speaking, it is both an adjective and a noun. But it goes far beyond the limits of language. It’s an identity and a way of being. You can belong to the bagaceira if you are down for anything, if you rock n´roll. 

But the root of the word and the original definition are usually left out of the explanation of its modern meaning. “Bagaceira” is, in fact, the pile of “bagaço” or bagasse left over after the production of sugar and ethanol or the extraction of sugarcane juice. And surely every Brazilian is all too familiar with the sight of a “bagaceira.” As you stand in line to order the sweet beverage, also known as “caldo de cana,” you watch the pile grow in size. What I find remarkable is that the Brazilian people have transformed a simple image of a messy pile of organic mass into a variety of lively and unexpected characters, contexts, and experiences.

With this project, I embrace this creative and transformative spirit to craft new futures, identities, objects and spaces from piles of bagasse. This project incorporates material science, traditional craft, regenerative design, and artistic, ecological, and cultural research.
Sugarcane is the world’s largest crop, and one-third of the plant is left over as bagasse after the juices are extracted for consumption or production of sugar and ethanol. Brazil’s harvest makes up 40% of the world’s supply, but more than half of the world’s countries produce the sweet reed at scale. If it’s hot and humid throughout the year, you’ll be sure to find sugarcane thriving. The cane crop sequesters loads of carbon during its growing cycle, and the bagasse is renewable, abundant, and easy to collect. However, it is usually tossed away, burnt or left on fields to rot which produce greenhouse gases and exacerbate the climate crisis. So, I ask, why don’t we use this agrowaste to craft objects that last, create spaces that spark joy, write unexpected narratives, and pave new paths for peoples, economies, and creatives?

I began this on-going research project through the Mention in Research program which is facilitated by ELISAVA and Instituto Superior de Educação e Ciências (ISEC Lisboa). The goal of this program is to help master’s students to manage the information of an applied design project and communicate from a scientific point of view. I have published the process and findings from the 10-month long research period in a scientific-style report, on Instagram and in the summary below.

Sugarcane bagasse contains 45-55% cellulose, 20-25% hemicellulose, and 18-24% lignin. All of the bagasse used in this project was sourced locally from Infusion Food, a Brazilian Restaurant in Barcelona. This form of bagasse differs substantially from the industrial byproduct commonly associated with sugar and ethanol production. Bagasse sourced from restaurants or food stands is pressed in a machine to extract the juice. It is not ground up or boiled or mixed with other industrial additives and therefore its fibers and stalks are usually more intact and may contain higher sucrose levels. Once a week, I stopped by the restaurant to pick up the left over bagasse and bring it by bicycle back to my studio where I dried, ground, sifted treated, or blended the fibers. I developed recipes using the raw bagasse which was dried and ground to varying granularities and the modified bagasse—the isolated cellulose fibers—were blended to diverse granularities. Alkali, acidic reagents or enzymatic catalysts can facilitate the degradation of lignin or the separation of the cellulose, hemicellulose and the lignin. The display case below shows all of the fiber types derived from the bagasse after collection from the restaurant.

Through extensive experimentation, trial, error and repetition, I created a library of 30 different sugarcane bagasse-based materials and assembled them into a library with their names and ingredients listed. The library is divided into 8 display cases organized by binder type. The natural binder types include, starches, algae, mycelia, cellulose, citric acid, calcium compounds, gelatin, and natural resins. An additional display case features bagasse in various forms--dried, treated, blended or sifted. The QR codes lead the viewers to more information about the featured samples and spark discussion about the plethora of natural, biodegradable and regenerative materials that can be created from an abundant agricultural waste product. 

More on material library

I tested all 30 of the materials to better understand their strength and durability. Using the equipment in the material lab at ELISAVA, I was able to test for tensile strength, hardness, flexural strength, compressive strength, impact resistance, water resistance, and heat resistance. This allows me to compare these bagasse-based materials to other more conventional materials such as, plastics, leather, wood, or cork.

These material tests also allowed me to compare the materials from the bagasse-based material library to each other. Which recipe variation is more resistant to water? Which ones will withstand impact? Which are flexible? Understanding each material's strengths and weaknesses allowed me to hypothesize about which materials will be suitable for which applications.

These woven panels below demonstrate how one selected material could be applied to crafted objects. This material is created by treating and blending the bagasse fibers, and mixing them with sodium alginate and a few other natural ingredients and molding the mixture into flat sheets. The paste must dry and then can be cut into strips. I was able to achieve two different tones of orange by adding different amounts of fiber to the mixture. The more fiber, the lighter the result. I wove the strips onto wooden frames in order to test out the process and plan to develop woven doors to a cabinet or room partitions using the same technique.

I used mixtures of sugarcane bagasse, glutinous rice flour, tapioca starch, limestone (calcium carbonate) to mold lamp shade forms. These lamps are my first attempts at molding the material into three dimensional shapes. Although simple, they serve as a jumping off point to achieve more complex forms.