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What if humans would have gills?

31 October 2018

Creators (Vice) researched the project Amphibio and interviewed the designer, Jun Kamei, during Dutch Design Week 2018.

"I wondered what products we would need if we would be flooded in the future."

If you consider that about a quarter of the Netherlands exists below sea level, it’s a good thing that building dikes and delta is our national specialty – next to things like bitterballen and letterbox companies. But there will come a moment when that’s not sufficient anymore to protect ourselves from the rising sea levels, and we have to come up with something else. Like learning to live with water in a different way, for example. By swimming in it. With gills.

At least that’s what Jun Kamei has in mind, a biomimetic designer and artist from Japan. His latest project, called Amphibio, is a kind of garment that is attached to a mouthcap and functions as a gill. Of course we still have some time before the world really will transform into a large Atlantis, so for the time being we do not really need gills, but its design is still in the starting phase. A concept design and a working prototype was on show at Dutch Design Week. We talked to Jun Kamei about his gill, the danger of flooding and inspiration from nature.

Creators: Hi Jun, how did you get this idea?

Jun Kamei: A while ago I imagined what it would be like to live in a city that is completely flooded, because the sea level has risen. I had to think of the different products that we would need, such as an automatic water cleaner, or a toilet that cleans itself. And gills, so we can function as amphibious beings. In such a situation, you would live both on land and in the water. After all, there are also animals that can do this.

Okay, but how realistic is it that we will soon be flooded under water?

More realistic than you probably think. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an institute that investigates climate change, predicted that in the worst-case, temperature would have risen by 4 degrees in 2100. That means that a large number of cities will flood, and the living environment from half a billion to three. billion people will be disturbed. It already happens now. I have visited an island in the Pacific Ocean for this work, and there I met people who really had to move to a neighboring island because their country has flooded.

What kind of background do you have as a designer?

I have a background in materials science. There I did research in the field of polymer materials, and I have been working on plastic and various types of rubbers. At the same time you could also see me as a biomimetic designer. In this area you get your inspiration from nature, and then copy it to applications for humans. Just like Amphibio: I was inspired by the gill of a water insect, and then made an artificial replica of it.

I have also made pearls of human breath. I did that by taking the CO2 out of the breath and mixing it with calcium, after which it is crystallized and you get a pearl. The idea behind that is that I wanted to create a work of art that really consists of your own body. You are the jewel yourself.

Why did you choose this design?

It has a technical and an aesthetic reason. On the one hand, it is inspired by the different forms you can find underwater, such as coral and the gills of fish, and on the other hand it should have as much surface contact with the water as possible, so the oxygen can get through.

Amphibio - Jun Kamei

How does your gill work exactly?

The gill is a kind of container of superhydrophobic elastomer, a material that cannot allow gases like oxygen to pass through, but no water. If you inhale the oxygen from the gill through a mask while under water, it’s getting noticed that the oxygen level in the gill gets lower than the oxygen level in the surrounding water. At that moment the oxygen from the water enters the gill through the material.

Right now, the gill does not yet provide enough oxygen to be useful to humans. In order to do that, I would have to create a material that allows more gas to flow through, and faster. When that would be done I cannot fully promise, but I'll continue testing until I can really apply it on a human scale.

What kind of reactions have you received so far?

Divers want to dive straight into the water and immediately let their imagination run wild. From the fashion industry, for example, I hear a different sound. There they see the design more as a wearable.