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A wood alternative made from kombucha wins the US James Dyson Award

The winner of the 2021 US James Dyson Award is 21-year-old Gabe Tavas. His mission is focused: Make wood without cutting down trees. So he invented Pyrus: a petroleum-free, wood-like material that’s sustainably produced with repurposed bacterial cellulose waste from kombucha.

The James Dyson Award runs in 28 countries and regions worldwide. Entrants must be, or have been within the last four years, enrolled for at least one semester in an undergraduate or graduate engineering/design-related course.

The inventor’s inspiration

Tavas says his ambition for creating global change came from what he calls the “immigrant influence.” His mother, now an immigration attorney, moved to the US from Cuba as a small child and his father moved from the Philippines at age 17. Tavas says:

I began considering entrepreneurship as a teenager and felt an urgency around solving global issues in sustainability.

Born and raised in Chicago, Tavas would enjoy nature at the Saint Paul Woods in Morton Grove, Illinois:

Growing up in the city, you don’t have  many expressions of nature, which can be stressful. Forests provide an escape. It’s my favorite place to meditate,  and the thought of losing that because we were too short-sighted pains me from a visceral level.

Tavas told Electrek:

By serving as a replacement for wood, Pyrus could help keep trees standing so they can continue to create conditions favorable for green energy.

How Pyrus is made

Every piece of wood has two essential ingredients: cellulose, which provides its basic shape and framework, and lignin, which acts as a glue for all the other components.

Some kombucha companies use microorganisms that produce coherent sheets of cellulose on top of the liquid. To make Pyrus, these sheets of cellulose are blended to an even consistency and then embedded into a gel. As the gel dries, it hardens and is placed under a mechanical press to form a flat sheet of wood-like material. This material can then be sanded, cut, and coated with resins, just like its tree-based counterparts.

While there are several companies creating wood alternative materials, many are using sawdust. Using sawdust still requires cutting down trees, and it also poses health risks to those who are overexposed to it.

Pyrus, on the other hand, uses kombucha waste, which is both environmentally friendly and sustainably created, to create a cellulose, thus making wood in a sustainable fashion. The end goal of Pyrus is to replace expensive and fancy wood products that are currently huge drivers of deforestation. 

Over the past year, Tavas has produced 74 Pyrus wood samples in a variety of colors and textures. Pyrus has been tested on several pieces of equipment commonly found in woodworking shops and maker spaces, all with the guidance and feedback from professional woodworkers. Check out the Pyrus application submission video below:

What’s next

The James Dyson Award provides Tavas with $2,600 prize money. He plans to use the money to expand his production facilities and develop 3D printing processes.

Ultimately, Tavas wants Pyrus to be  made into various environmentally friendly products that meet consumer needs and are commercially viable.

Pyrus will progress to the international stage of the James Dyson Award. The international shortlist will be announced on October 13, and the international winners will be announced on November 17. British inventor and entrepreneur Sir James Dyson personally chooses the international winner.

Read more: These researchers invented energy-efficient transparent wood

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Avatar for Michelle Lewis Michelle Lewis

Michelle Lewis is a writer and editor on Electrek and an editor on DroneDJ, 9to5Mac, and 9to5Google. She lives in White River Junction, Vermont. She has previously worked for Fast Company, the Guardian, News Deeply, Time, and others. Message Michelle on Twitter or at Check out her personal blog.