Biotechnology and Its Impact on Manufacturing
Nature has always inspired science, engineering, and manufacturing. Biotechnology, bioengineering, and synthetic biology all rely on biological processes that are found in the natural world and can be applied to manufacturing—often resulting in more efficient designs or products and reduced costs, with less impact to the environment. For example, scientists have developed a variation of spider silk that is stronger than Kevlar and so flexible it can be used as fabric for parachutes and protective clothing, or surgical sutures—and it is 98% water.
“Biomanufacturing” is a term that refers to the use of biological processes and living organisms to manufacture products—key sectors include pharmaceuticals, consumer products, food and beverage, and industrial/environmental. It is an expanding field of manufacturing because it “uses renewable biological resources sustainably to produce food, energy, and industrial goods,” says Lionel Clarke, a professor of bioengineering at Imperial College in London, England. “The sustainable production of molecules from biomass feedstocks as the component building blocks of future medicines, chemicals, materials, and liquid fuels—exploiting the untapped potential stored within millions of tons of biological waste and residual materials—is core to the future circular economy.”
Biotech/biomanufacturing is especially prominent in the pharmaceutical sector. Biotech-related products include vaccines, biopharmaceuticals, allergenics, antibacterial drugs, cell therapies, and even replacement organs. Vaccines, for example, are often developed using yeast organisms in a tightly controlled fermentation process. Bacteria and fungi can also be genetically engineered to produce large concentrations of desired biomolecules through fermentation.
Living tissues can be printed in exact organ shapes with 3D bioprinters, using “bioinks” that are rich in cells. This technology is advancing so rapidly that 3D-printed organs should be ready for clinical testing within a few years. 3D-printed human tissue is currently being used for cosmetics, drug testing, and clinical trial applications, which will drastically reduce the need for animal trials.
“Industrial biotechnology” is another term for using enzymes and microorganisms to manufacture a variety of products, including detergents, textiles, paper and pulp, and biofuels. Fermentation can be used to create plastics, beauty products, and jet fuel. Genomatica, a bioengineering company, announced it has discovered a way to use engineered microorganisms to ferment plant sugars to produce caprolactam, a key ingredient in nylon, thus eliminating the need to use fossil fuels to make this type of hugely popular plastic.
In electronics, Zymergen recently created a biofilm for electronic applications. Called Hyaline, it is thought to be the first fermented electronic product and is already in use in flexible circuits, display touch sensors, and printable electronics. “It has the potential to transform the electronics industry,” states CEO Josh Hoffman, who sees a wide range of other applications, including personal care products and agriculture.
Industrial and Environmental
Biotechnology is used to produce industrial enzymes, chemicals, convert biomass into energy and chemicals, and remediate environmental pollution. For the construction industry, bio-cementation is a process that uses bacteria to precipitate calcium carbonate within concrete, making it stronger and more durable. Bioremediation is a waste-management technique that uses organisms to neutralize contaminants, breaking them down into non-toxic substances.
EnginZyme, a Swedish biotech company, has developed a new technology similar to fermentation that can improve the manufacturing of a range of products, including food ingredients, pharmaceuticals, plastics, and chemicals. “Our platform mimics fermentation, but at a 40% reduction in capital expenditures and a 70% reduction in energy,” states CEO Karim Engelmark Cassimjee. “We use biology and enzyme catalysts instead of metal catalysts, at lower temperatures and pressures.” He hopes this technology will enable smaller-scale, on-demand manufacturing, especially in the chemical industry.
Food and Agriculture
Amino acids are important ingredients in the food and beverage industry and are manufactured using biological techniques. Fermentation is commonly used to increase the dietary value of the food through the biosynthesis of vitamins and amino acids, as well as improve protein and fiber digestibility. “One-third of the processed foods of the world are fermented foods, with either natural or intentional fermentation adding microbial strains,” states Gargi Ghoshal, a chemical engineer at Panjab University in India.
Biomanufacturing is also essential for food safety. Biotechnology methods can extend the shelf life of perishable food items, as well as maintain food texture and other important sensory properties. Biotechnology techniques can also manufacture antimicrobial agents within the packaging that inhibit the growth of dangerous micro-organisms that spoil the flavor and consistency of the food and can cause human illness, notes Ghoshal.
The Department of Defense has announced its intention to create a Synthetic Biology Manufacturing Innovation Institute (SynBio MII) to support the U.S. biomanufacturing ecosystem. Synthetic biology applies engineering principles to biology to create valuable biological components and systems that do not already exist in the natural world. Much of this work will involve new ways of using DNA sequencing. A major goal is to provide the U.S. with domestic capabilities to manufacture critical resources and provide supply chain security. Innovations will likely apply to nearly all manufacturing industries.
Biomanufacturing innovation continues to advance at a rapid pace, especially as more manufacturers take notice of the lower material and operating costs and reduced environmental impacts compared to traditional manufacturing methods.
“Biomanufacturing isn’t just about making our current materials more cheaply,” says John Cumbers, a biologist and founder of SynBioBeta, an activity hub for synthetic biology start-up companies. “It is also about bringing incredible new products to market that outperform the best products that conventional chemistry can give us now. By learning from and building upon the diversity that nature has given us, we can make a better product in a better way.”