Yesterday your screen was built with fossil fuels – today it’s built with biology
Modern manufacturing has hardly changed for 200 years. Fossil fuels are burned or converted to other materials to make everything from skyscrapers to phone screens. But now scientists and entrepreneurs are turning back to nature’s oldest building blocks to design a newer, more sustainable future. Why pump oil from the ground to make chemicals when microbes can make better materials, better for our planet?
When companies use natural tools for manufacturing, these bio-manufacturing platforms are inherently sustainable. Partnering with nature also allows companies to create better products with new properties such as phone screens that bend without breaking or microbes that turn junk into useful objects.
Zymergen, a company using microbes to develop breakthrough products, calls this process biofilling. Biofilling produces new materials using microorganisms with new genetic instructions. “Manu” is not part of the name because the processes cannot be done by hand, but require large-scale automation.
Sustainability for the life of the 21st century
“My personal motivations and those of the people who work for Zymergen are to make the world more sustainable,” says Zach Serber, co-founder and scientific director of Zymergen. “How do we maintain the quality of human life and civilization while providing products and experiences that people seek and desire while remaining sustainable? “
Most people think that living a sustainable life means you have to afford modern luxury. Zymergen changes that by showing that it is possible to have sustainability and enjoy products at the same time. Serber is clear that quality and function cannot be sacrificed for an eco-friendly label.
“In addition to durability, the reason many of our customers want our products is that they perform better,” says Serber.
Zymergen works in the chemical industry to manufacture new biomolecules which can be incorporated into new materials with different applications. The company currently has a pipeline of 10 products that it plans to launch in the coming years.
Last year, Zymergen launched Hyaline, one of the world’s first fermented electronics. Hyaline is a transparent polyimide film that can be used in electronic devices and provides mechanical strength, optical clarity and temperature resistance.
“Hyaline is clear, incredibly durable and flexible. Through biology we can create better renewable films,” says Serber. “Hyaline can be used as a phone or tablet screen that can be easily folded or rolled up. It can also be a touch screen with embedded silver nanowires.”
Zymergen is working on additional films in the field of consumer electronics that will also be polyimide with new biomolecules and different properties.
Safer insect repellent
Electronic products are not Zymergen’s only goal. The company also plans to launch a non-toxic insect repellant in 2023. Unlike conventional solutions, the new product is not petroleum based. DEET is one of the most popular insect repellents, but it is toxic to mammals and should be applied sparingly.
The advantage of Zymergen’s new insect repellant is its lack of toxicity, which means you can apply it liberally. Plus, you can co-formulate it with other products, like combining sunscreen with insect repellant in one bottle. The repellant can be incorporated into products such as skin care lotions and creams so that people can be protected from mosquitoes as part of their daily routine. This could be especially important for people in developing regions who are at higher risk for mosquito-borne diseases but lack sufficient access to safe or effective repellents.
How bioengineering is growing
The large-scale use of nature’s old manufacturing systems is the first step in disrupting and replacing the unsustainability of petrochemical manufacturing. But scaling is a huge challenge. Biofilling has passed proof of concept and is ready for the global stage. But how can manufacturing companies get there on time as time is running out of our climate crisis?
Zymergen is an example of the maturity of the bioengineering industry. There are many issues that could be solved with biology, which means there is also a lot of room in the industry for everyone to develop. The niche issues that Zymergen solves with biology, like flexible phone screens and safer bug repellents, can be extended. Scaling up can occur both in terms of the application of these technologies and the fabrication of these materials with great impact.
Zymergen is also a prime example of high throughput research and development (R&D). Traditionally, R&D has been relatively slow and on a small scale. However, Zymergen bridges the “valley of fate” where startups often fail to move from R&D to commercial scale. By integrating high-throughput R&D, Zymergen creates the necessary commercial scale requirements from the start.
Zymergen’s R&D process speeds time to market. Given our climate emergency, we have no time to waste. Ensuring that bio-engineered microbes can handle high throughput testing and large-scale manufacturing helps bring these materials to market faster without repeated trial and error. And since Zymergen’s systems are more sustainable because they are built with biology, the environmental impact of product development is much lower.
“We expect the bioeconomy to be the world’s most significant economic change in the 21st century. But that won’t happen overnight, of course, because the fermentation ability is holding us back. According to Culture Biosciences, there are 62 million liters of fermentation capacity in the world. Manufacturing meat by fermentation alone would require 80 million liters. It would take 400 billion liters to manufacture all chemicals, ”says Serber.
As the bioengineering industry grows, the fermentation capacity will increase if there is consumer demand and technology capable of harnessing it. The future can be both sustainable and useful if we let biology take the lead.
thank’s for Lana Bandoim for additional research and reports in this article. I am the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies I write about are sponsors of the SynBioBeta Conference and weekly summary.