Biotechnology Could Revolutionize Manufacturing
On June 17, 2020, NDIA and Lockheed Martin hosted the Biotechnology for Materiel and Defense Symposium. The symposium highlighted critical developments in the biotechnology industry from the biosynthesis of manufacturing material to advanced projects sponsored by DOD. DARPA, for example, presented its Living Foundries program that seeks to maximize both the production and cost-effectiveness of using harnessed biological processes to create industrial material. The event underscored the potential for biotechnology for defense applications. It gave a platform for keynote speakers and researchers to make the case that biotechnology is the future of manufacturing.
Academia and industry continue to produce breakthroughs in biotechnology and are developing creative methods to manipulate biological processes. These natural processes enable the biotech industry to synthesize manufacturing material, such as polymer-like substances or even material mimicking wood. For example, Northwestern University’s Mike Jewett studies cell-free systems that permit the isolation and replication of biological, or intracellular processes to produce a preferred molecule. These molecules, if created in copious quantities, can create virtually any product desired. Isolating particular biological pathways allows for the sustained production of these molecules. Thus, harnessing these specific pathways avoids unwanted byproducts produced by a non-cell free system. There are a plethora of uses for cell-free systems like producing pharmaceuticals, proteins for vaccines, diagnostic tools, and biosensing systems. Most importantly, cell-free systems have the potential to cheapen the manufacturing process and lower carbon emissions drastically.
On the industry side, Amyris, a California-based biotechnology company, uses yeast to transform sugar into a pure product and is credited with creating a gold standard in its chemical process. They managed to produce nine molecule targets at scale – meaning they managed to create a sufficient amount of pure product for consumption. Moreover, they have 20 new molecules in commercial development. They have also improved their data management and analytic system to enhance their product pipeline. However, there is still trouble in producing substantial amounts of products needed for mass production. The scaling problem is a prevalent issue across the biotech industry. Nevertheless, their achievements serve as a model for the future of biomanufacturing, and their methods show promise in developing an efficient process to create new materials for industry.
Despite the many uses for biosynthetic materials, there are still many implications to consider. How will the bioeconomy be affected if biosynthetic materials become a ubiquitous product? The biotech industry could crowd out the need for materials like wood, steel, and petroleum if the manufacturing processes for biosynthetic materials become commercially viable. On the other hand, DNA manipulation of human cells poses an ethical concern, such as cloning for medical purposes. Nevertheless, the gains in the biotech industry are fascinating, and developing new materials is becoming easier.
The DoD has taken a keen interest in biotechnology and incorporated it into its Communities of Interest (CoI). Interestingly, all military branches have different interests in biosynthetic material. For instance, the Office of Naval Research is looking into coatings that eliminate corrosion and is researching the use of biological material for ISR systems, namely for optics. In contrast, SOCOM has a diverse set of interests focusing mainly on human systems but is interested in biotechnology for its ground equipment. The human aspect of biotechnology has exciting potential, like tissue regeneration, biosensors to address combat stress, and artificial ways to maintain homeostasis for the warfighter.
To maximize the potential for biotechnology, DOD has implemented many policies to better collaborate with industry. The ManTech Program stood up the Manufacturing Innovation Institutes (MIIs), a public-private initiative comprising nine institutes focused on a specific development. One such MII is the Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute (ARMI). Composed of both profit and non-profit entities, this MII concentrates on fixing the scaling problem faced by many biomanufacturers.
Commercial companies have discovered creative ways to tap into the biosynthetic market. bioMason Inc found an ingenious way to use bacteria to create a cement-like substance. By using bacteria, an aggregate, and a solution, bioMason can grow its building material. The Air Force took an interest in bioMason’s ability to construct runways for aircraft through its Project Medusa. Also, bioMason created a method to reduce dust spreading during helicopter landings, which would significantly benefit pilots and ground forces. Another product worth mentioning is Zymergen’s Hyaline, a film used for a variety of electronics. Like many biosynthetic materials, Hyaline relies on fermentation for its production. Some applications for Hyaline include touch screens, optics, and circuit boards.
Interestingly, Hyaline could have defense utility. The film can be applied to foldable electronics in the field. Ground-based electrical and communication equipment can be clunky and take up room for an infantryman or operator. However, if some of that equipment could be made foldable without damaging the screen, Hyaline could be a solution. At any rate, there are countless possibilities for biotech companies to thrive in the biosynthetic market to bring their products into the defense industry.