Two years ago, design student Rodrigo García González made a name for himself when he invented "Hop!," a suitcase prototype that conveniently follows its owner.
His latest idea, the edible "Ooho" water bottle, is simpler on the surface but goes after one of the world's most troubling environmental threats: plastic pollution (a problem much more serious than lost luggage).
In an ideal world, Ooho would replace the 50 billion plastic bottles that Americans consume each year. At last count, about 1.5 million barrels of crude oil are tapped annually to manufacture plastic bottles, according to a 2007 resolution by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. After they're thrown away, these containers often end up polluting the ocean, where there are roughly over 46,000 pieces of floating plastic trash for every square mile, according to a report by the United Nations.
Instead of creating a bottle and then filling it with water, González, along with fellow Imperial College London students Pierre Paslier and Guillaume Couche, used a process that allows the bottle to take shape as it coalesces around the liquid.
González and his team first took a frozen ball of water and dipped it into a calcium chloride solution, which formed a gelatinous layer. Then, the ball soaked in another solution made from brown algae extract, which encapsulated the ice in a second squishy membrane to reinforce the structure. Keeping the water in the algae solution for long periods of time allows the mold to become thicker and stronger.
"The main point in manipulating the water as solid ice during the encapsulation is to make it possible to get bigger spheres and allow the calcium and algae to stay exclusively in the membrane," González says.
The method is adapted from a culinary technique known as spherification. Pioneered in the 1950s by Unilever and popularized by legendary Spanish chef Ferran Adrià, the process has since been used to whip up gastronomic delights such as fake caviar and the juice-filled pearls often added to bubble tea drinks.
But no one had thought to apply it to encase large amounts of water. González's team has since gone through thousands of prototypes, testing them in Spain, Italy and Britain. Last summer, the designers tested a few versions of the product on the streets of Spain for a local television program.
What do the bottles taste like? Not much, González says, though "the jelly texture around [the bottles] is something we are not used to ... yet."
"Not all of the reactions were positive," González says. "Some people say that [the bottles] are like breast implants or jellyfish."
Even with the Ooho's fortified layers, González describes the container's strength as comparable to the skin found on fruit.
"This is a problem we're trying to address with a double container," he says. "The idea is that we can pack several individual edible Oohos into a bigger Ooho container [to make] a thicker and more resistant membrane."
Other challenges include figuring out how to make the bottle re-sealable while keeping the "tasteless" skin sanitary enough for consumers to eat. Yogurt maker Stonyfield recently rolled out an entire line of yogurt products wrapped in a flavored coating called Wikipearls, made from a mix of natural food particles, which are now available at select Whole Foods locations throughout Massachusetts. The edible balls of yogurt are sold with the protection of a sealed plastic bag; how exactly the Ooho would be packaged on shelves is something developers will determine when the product is rolled out to consumers.
"There's still a lot things with the engineering of the membrane that we need to improve," González says.
González says a few food and beverage companies have reached out to him to discuss collaborating on the technology further. In the meantime, the project is moving forward under a creative commons license, which means the recipe for Ooho water bottles will be made available online, and soon, if you have two hours and two cents to spare, you could make a bottle in your own kitchen.