Award-winning biomaterials made from egg and nut shells!
Today we are talking with Rania Elkalla, the founder and designer behind Shell Homage, a studio that experiments with unusual materials towards unexpected applications.
Rania is interested in materials that appear to be quite different in property, behavior, and composition, such as eggshells, cacao shells and the outer shells of various other nuts. Her work aims to create materials that act as a replacement for oil based plastics. Her bioplastics are fit for several design applications ranging from interior, lighting, furniture, home accessories, consumable goods, even 3D printing and jewelry design.
We have known about Shell Homage for some time now. Early last year we got the chance to connect with Rania Elkalla herself, on the (insta)gram. Here’s her story:
What made you gravitate towards the materials you did?
One of the biggest industries in the world is the food industry. Generally, because nuts and eggs are typically perceived as foodstuffs, they are overlooked and underrated as a material. But there’s more to these foods than meets the eye. You can get a lot more out of them. They are a wonderful natural resource.
Consider that there are more than 1 trillion eggs produced per year, then imagine how much waste results from this level of production.
Eggshells are made up of about 95% calcium carbonate, one of nature’s most absorbent materials. They contain collagen and their membranes can absorb up to 78% of the carbon dioxide in the air. When it comes to nuts and their shells, there are tons of millions of them that are left unused every year. Nuts are heat and water-resistant. They are as strong as wood and very durable. Most of the weight in a nut comes from its outer shell. For example, a walnut shell is typically 67% of the total weight of the fruit.
Nutshells have been studied scientifically, and it has been proven that they enhance the biopolymer properties of a product.
Shells are a wonderful natural resource. There is no need to throw them away. We do that far too often with things these days.
Since the aim of Shell Homage is to create functional and sustainable products that have a life span, yet are able to completely biodegrade at the end of their life, shells and natural fillers such as egg seem to me to be worthy material choices to explore further. By using these kinds of materials, no toxic chemicals are needed to produce a viable product. That means that when you decide that you don’t need it anymore, the product can be dipped into your garden and left to naturally decay.
I see it as the ultimate solution for “getting rid of things”. Instead of “storing” them or having the earth “store” them for years and years, these materials will decay naturally, offering an alternative to standard plastics, which as we know, never decay!
The objects and materials I have developed also have another aim…
They aspire to start a conversation, educate and enlighten us on how they’ve been made and whom they’ve been made by. By using unexpected ingredients and experimenting with different methods of making, I hope that these materials make us enquire more about the ingredients in our products. I want people to question why certain ingredients are used. I want to inspire curiosity and a desire to choose healthier alternatives.
Using eggs as a paint filler and binder material is actually an age-old technique, right? Do you see a revival of ancient techniques in the work that you do?
Egg white and egg yolks were used in the construction of several bridges all over Europe. In Prague, Charles IV ordered egg yolks and whites to be added to the mortar to enrich it, and allow the stone blocks to bind together better, resulting in a tougher, harder end product. Just like in baking, when you add egg yolks, the dough holds together better.
Another example is the “Portuguese Bridge” or “The Egg Bridge” which is 110 km from Addis Ababa. During the construction of the bridge, stone masonry mortar was mixed with egg whites to improve its consistency. That’s where the bridge got its name! Another interesting fact is that Stari Most (known as Old Bridge) is a 16th-century Ottoman bridge in the city of Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The bridge was seized together with metal pins and the mortar was made from the protein of egg whites.
There is a difference however with the work that I do and how I use eggs. In order to create a bio-composite material, a material in and of itself, I use the waste of eggshells, not the egg protein (the food substance itself) mixed with the plant-based binding material.
In my work, the eggshells are used as a filler to modify the properties of the base materials in a composite structure.
Indeed, a growing effort has arisen to use bio-fillers as a replacement for synthetic ones in an attempt to reduce the cost. Eggshell is a strong bio-filler candidate since it contains high percentages of CaCO3, which exists in bulk quantity and is inexpensive.
Moreover, the integral components of eggshell enables the reduction of shrinkage during molding, enhances stiffness and flammability resistance of the biopolymers used.
The idea behind Shell Homage is to work with biopolymers and natural fillers, experiment with the unexpected influences of these materials, and explore different ways of producing materials, from high-tech processing techniques to the handmade.
3D filament made of eggs!
A biodegradable material is definitely one that speaks to the challenges of our time. Do you feel a sense of duty to stand for a new way of seeing resources and making products? What inspires you as a designer today?
“Shell homage is definitely a brand based on values.”
We need to work with nature rather than against it, learning from nature’s best methods for furthering production not just of materials but of end products. To reach this point, we need to overcome certain presumptions about what our products should look like. We need to pull together some newer production methods, and materials that show promising substitutions. Materials that make us rethink how we make things and what those things could be made of.
In our profession, it’s very important to work on material research projects. While material science demonstrates the importance of understanding material from all perspectives, it only provides us with only a part of the puzzle. In the end, I think designers should initiate more collaboration. It is their responsibility to speak both languages. Creativity comes from trials and explorations drawn from other fields. It’s all about having a curiosity to experiment with new things and not to limit yourself to the knowledge you have gained from your field. It is not an easy task to bridge the gap in information and technique. What matters is the process of finding solutions that are meaningful to people, and that enable new ways of understanding, inspiring, and creating a positive impact in society and in our own daily lives. I also think that we shouldn’t focus only on objects and installations but also on the creative process of how something is made.
Shell Homage was initiated during my master’s research project, where I was inspired by the aim to reinterpret each material group and communicate their qualities as well as the environmental problems they speak to. I wanted to then, and still do now: create products that have a life span and are able to be returned back to nature when that life span is up.
Shell Homage studio offers designed products that are not only intended to provide a basic function, but also an experience that is meaningful and delightful to the user. I want to stir emotional and intellectual curiosities within consumers. I propose a new way to look at “shells”, and in doing so I hope to reveal this material’s personal homage.
So break it down for us. What are the different components used to make these materials and how can one work with the material itself?
The shells are bonded with organic and biodegradable substances, creating a mixture which is in some cases blended with colorants extracted from nature. Taking the appearance of marble and natural stones, the surface textures can vary from rough to smooth, translucent and transparent to opaque. The material can also be stiff or malleable. Each piece is handcrafted into a unique combination of colors and patterns. It is of course 100% compostable when it is no longer in use. It’s a highly adaptable material, its properties able to be controlled according and adjusted according to the application.
The resulting mixtures can be handled through different production techniques as well. Similar to stone or ceramic, the material can be drilled or sanded or laser cut, but that’s not all. The more we get to know the material and work with it, the more we discover it’s capabilities, and capacity for being formed in different ways, opening us up to various ways of dealing with it and processing it. With time, the materials become more and more familiar.
What does the future hold for Shell Homage? How would you like to see this material develop? Is there a designer or brand that you would like to partner with?
We would like to focus on more B2B and make Shell Homage composite material more accessible for different designers and manufactures, paving the way for unlimited possibilities of remarkable designs and applications. We would like to offer the material in several forms such as granulates, as 3D printing filaments, sheets, and injection molded parts. There are plenty of designers and brands I would love to collaborate with, some of them include Kartell, IKEA, Formafantasma, Nike…
I hope my work will inspire others to do something out of food waste as well. There is so much to do in the world of food, since it’s one of the biggest industries on earth! I think a lot of creativity is needed to address those things. A designer can be the activist and the cause for change. He or she must be innovative in spirit, seeking out collaborators to reach amazing solutions which outperform and offer truly viable alternatives to current approaches. The pursuit is to be in full control of the lifespan of the product, from its origin – in the form of natural material – through to the final product until its inescapable decay.