British Ecological Society roots out Swansea research expertise for RHS Chelsea Flower Show

Collaboration between Swansea University’s Colleges of Engineering and Science, and the British Ecological Society (BES).

Tree rootCollaboration between Swansea University’s Colleges of Engineering and Science, and theBritish Ecological Society (BES), has produced 3D printed models of the root systems of plants, which are on show at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

Dr Dan Forman, who leads the Swansea Ecology Research Team (SERT) in the Department of Biosciences, was approached by the BES in March for assistance with the printed models, which are used in the Society's exhibition situated in the Discovery Zone at this international event, from 19th-23rd May, to visually convey the complexity and beauty of plant roots.

Dr Forman, who is the Welsh representative on the Society's education, training and careers committee, in turn sought expert advice from Dr Daniel J Thomas, Senior Research Officer in the College of Engineering's Welsh Centre for Printing and Coating (WCPC).

Dr Thomas' expertise was then employed to produce the 3D printed models of the root systems of plants from images, which are made from plant based materials and are small enough to allow the show's visitors to handle.

The BES's description of this year's display reads: "Visitors entering the display will feel as though they are transported to an underground environment where they will be able to view root structures at a minute level and get up close to the microscopic world of nitrogen-fixing nodules and mycorrhizae.

"The display which incorporates 3D printed aspects will show how different species are suited to specific soil types, with rhizotrons displaying the root architecture of various species."

Dr Dan Forman said: "This is an excellent example of the synergy and benefit of cross-disciplinary working at Swansea University, which will be showcased at this international event."‌

Dr Daniel J Thomas said: "The RHS Chelsea Flower show will exhibit our latest novel green polymer developed at the WCPC. The British Ecological Society exhibition will showcase the advanced polymer as an exemplar of new environmentally sound materials, which could help to reduce future carbon dioxide emissions.

"The WCPC-engineered Ecoflex is a stable poly-lactic acid-based polymer made from 98% renewable natural materials with 2% urethane for flexible reinforcement. This eco-friendly material is an alternative to tradition thermoplastics, which usually contain a number of environmentally damaging synthetics.

"The polymer made from fermented corn starch forms a lactic acid compound, which is subsequently polymerised. The idea is that plants can feed off the sugars within the polymer, which will ultimately breakdown the structure.

"Thus the polymer is able to provide root reinforcement for young trees, which also acts as a growth accelerator. Over a period of months the scaffold structure breaks down naturally resulting in no by-product at the end of the growth process."

"This project has been a successful collaboration between the College of Engineering and Swansea Ecological Research Team (SERT)."