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Inventing Smells for Space: A chemistry, design, and R&D collaboration with IFF

Steve Boxall/ZeroG

Smells for Space is a speculative design project exploring how astronauts and other spacefarers might use scent as a means of staying connected to people and places on Earth. Ani Liu, then a graduate student in the Design Fiction research group (and recently graduated), created the project for the Space Exploration Initiative’s inaugural zero gravity research flight. Here, she recounts the process of navigating the chemical, technical, and design challenges of developing scents for a zero-gravity environment. Ani worked closely on the project with International Flavors & Fragrances Inc., a Media Lab member company, collaborating on nearly every aspect of the process with members of their chemistry, R&D, and creative teams.

“IFF was thrilled to support Ani’s project as we ask ourselves what the perfumery of tomorrow will smell, sound, feel and look like,” says Anahita Mekanik, with whom Ani worked throughout the project. “Smells for Space perfectly echoes our own quest at IFF to imagine an expanded role for scent in our lives in the future.”

Perfume meets zero gravity—a unique design challenge

Over the course of the last two years, I had been teaching myself how to make perfumes for my research, and had been creating a set of novel smells at the Media Lab. I had originally been planning on creating my own scents for this project, but midway through the project, I ran into some technical difficulties. One of the many challenges of sending olfactory elements up into a zero-gravity environment were the technical parameters set by the flight’s research administrators. The odorous substances could not be liquid, could not be highly flammable or toxic, and could not contaminate the shuttle walls or equipment. Also of great sensitivity was the potential spread of the odor—because there would be many other researchers aboard the flight, it was important that the smells would not influence their research, or cause them nausea or discomfort. I could navigate some of these parameters, such as the containment of the smells, but for others—such as its toxicity and flammability—I knew I would need to consult with experts.

IFF immediately came to mind because they had just become a member company, and all of my interactions with their representatives had been so lively and positive. I reached out to them outlining my project and asked if they might help me work through the technical challenges in bringing scents up to zero gravity,  and they were incredibly supportive and engaged about aiding the project.

Throughout the process, I worked with Anahita Makanik, creative marketing, North America at IFF (who also has years of scent development background); Michael Monteleone, Director of Research and Development; Ronald Gabbard, an expert on delivery systems; and a chemist from IFF who helped to infuse the scents into the polymer beads and other materials that could be brought onto the Zero G shuttle safely. 

Inventing a new way to package scents

My aim was to create three scents of Earth to bring to a zero-gravity environment to explore the emotional impact of space travel. I knew from the beginning that I wanted the smells to range from universal to personal. Some of the scent options included: the ocean, forest, dirt, a leather armchair, a freshly baked cookie, my childhood home, and the smell of a loved one. 

After a few conversations with Anahita, in order to limit the ingredients within the toxicity parameter we quickly decided the best way to proceed was to select a set of IFF’s single-molecule creations.These captive molecules are created by IFF research directors and chemists to bring new possibilities to the perfumer’s palette of ingredients in order to shape new experiences and widen the realm of olfactory sensations. IFF’s R&D team scours the olfactive molecule landscape, applying new developments in chemistry to imagine and develop molecules never smelled before.

I had the pleasure of visiting a room with an interactive timeline featuring a curated selection of IFF’s scent molecules. These were sampled in small bottles and arranged chronologically, some of them going as far back as the 1940s! As I smelled each one to learn which memory and emotional associations were triggered, Anahita took notes. We did several rounds of smelling until we narrowed it down to a selection of about nine. Anahita consulted with the R&D experts to check on their possible range of delivery mechanisms, lifespan, stability, flammability, and optimal dosage for regulatory requirements.

We next further narrowed the selection down to six, and placed them in a special patented container that would only release one puff of smell at a time. All six were sent to my studio, where I documented them and sent them to the ZeroG corporation. This delivery method was rejected, because of concerns due to pressurization. So we invented a second method of delivery, narrowing the choices down to four. This second method involved coating the olfactory molecules on special polymer beads, which would release the scents in small amounts over a long period of time. I designed a three-chamber, double-contained wearable capsule for the polymer beads, and the project was finally approved for flight.

Throughout the entire process, Anahita and her team at IFF were incredibly supportive, resourceful, patient, and open-minded. I was able to visit their sleek (and wonderful-smelling) New York headquarters and a few of their laboratories. As an artist that address emotional themes such as longing and nostalgia through the tools of science and technology, the expertise of IFF was incredibly inspiring and eye-opening.

What’s next?

While Smells for Space is currently being submitted for various exhibition opportunities, I am continuing in my line of emotional research regarding memory, longing, and simulated telepresence towards the future of space travel. I’m currently working on a project where I am sending a capsule into low orbit through Blue Origin and the Space Exploration Initiative. The paper-lined capsule will contain a piece of charcoal with a sensor on it. As the capsule travels into zero gravity, the charcoal will float about, marking the sides of the container and drawing a path of its journey. The sensor will collect its movement data, which will be transferred into an identical box on Earth, where a small CNC rig will move a sister charcoal in the same movements as the one in flight. This project asks, how can we transmit experiences across space and time?

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