The green revolution

Engineers are on the hunt for new advanced materials. Algae and dandelions may hold the answers, says Steve Bagshaw of the Industrial Biotechnology Leadership Forum

Imagine a composite with a remarkable strength to weight ratio. Cheap to produce and from a sustainable source, the polymer could be used by engineers in the aeronautic and automotive industries. Weight could be cut by ten per cent, with acceleration enhanced and fuel efficiency improved significantly. Imagine a strong resin and hardener that dried in minutes without harmful fumes. Manufacturing could be sped up and workers wouldn’t be exposed to dangerous volatiles.

These aren’t high-tech visions of the future but examples of industrial biotechnology – the use of living cells to produce chemicals. All these exciting advances could change engineering in the near future. But one of the big challenges is that many engineers are too comfortable with what they know. Many continue to use the same materials they’ve used for years and risk missing out on these huge advances.

Biotechnology is a thriving, innovative sector. Through harnessing nanoscopic factories in bacterial, algal and plant cells we can produce new polymers and chemical ingredients. But we’re not constrained by the molecules that occur naturally in these organisms. Engineers are working alongside biologists to design materials of the future.

Through targeted modifications the DNA of these cells we open a whole range of opportunities. Need stronger binding between two molecules? Introduce an enzyme to modify surface chemistry. Want a shorter polymer? Find a protein that chops chains to specific lengths. Industrial biotechnologists are listening to the needs of engineers and manufacturers and devising materials to fit the bill.

The Flaxland canoe is made using a resin and hardener derived from flaxseed oil by UK-based Dragonkraft

There is much focus on novel materials with unique properties, such as polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs), a diverse range of polyesters generated by bacteria. But identical duplicates of petroleum-based chemicals - called ‘drop-ins’ - are also being produced. Bioethanol from sugar cane is used to produce bio-based PET, with production expected to top five million tonnes by 2020.

Not only are there exciting new advanced materials to be designed and discovered, biotechnology ticks a second box. Through using sustainable feedstocks such as wood pulp, and energy from sunlight, biotechnology has the potential to be cheap and carbon neutral, allowing engineers to move away from petroleum-based materials and the fluctuating costs associated with them. As regulations tighten and more downstream industries and consumers demand green credentials, the sustainable nature of industrial biotechnology makes it an even more attractive option.

The UK is fantastically placed to be a world leader in the use of bio-based materials. We have excellent research centres and innovative biotech businesses. Academics are eager to translate their findings into applications and work with engineers to design new materials. With our aeronautic, construction and automotive industries thriving, this presents a huge opportunity.

And it’s something that the government recognise as significant. At a recent biotech exhibition in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Business and Energy Minister Michael Fallon spoke of the facilities and expertise in the UK which are “allowing us to lead the way in industrial biotechnology and find innovative ways to replace traditional manufacturing products and processes with cheaper, greener and often more functional alternatives.

These things take time, and this can be further hampered by the conservatism in the engineering industry. But despite this, there are a number of exciting developments that have made it out of the lab and into factories and manufacturing plants.   For example, Ecotechnilin, a company specialising in products from natural fibres, has developed a range of materials with diverse applications. Polymers are processed from the stem of flax plants, a crop long cultivated across the northern hemisphere. Fibricard, for example, is an alternative to fibreglass.  Produced entirely from sustainable materials, including sugar resins and cardboard, the honeycomb structure gives it remarkable mechanical strength. Automotive engineers have incorporated the material in to interior floor panels, reducing weight and improving carbon footprints of the vehicle in both manufacturing and lifetime emissions.

Biome, a UK-based bioplastics producer, is producing aromatic molecules that can be used as additives to enhance durability, strength and flexibility in bioplastics. Currently, bioplastics require additives which are synthesised from petrochemicals, but the new molecules are generated from lignin, a naturally occurring molecule found in wood.

Resins with 100% renewable content have been developed by Dragonkraft, a UK-based manufacturer. The liquid resin and hardener are derived from natural flaxseed oils and do not come with the health hazards associated with epoxy resins. To illustrate the performance of the products the company built a lightweight canoe using sustainable flax/linseed epoxidised resins. Simply exposing the resins to UV rays in sunlight harden them and ensure the canoe is fully waterproof.

Just this week a German research group announced that they are able to extract high-grade rubber from the humble dandelion. The polymers are more resistant to the effects of the weather than traditional rubber. Producing such an important material from a plant which many see as a weed could also reduce pressure on rubber trees in endangered rainforests.

IB has huge potential. Engineers are busy and, understandably, tend to rely on the world they know. Taking on new ideas involves risk, and many would rather let others take that risk and wait until new ideas become tried and tested before they start using them. But someone needs to make the first move, and those who do are often the ones that win the big rewards.

Much of the research is there – it now needs guidance from the engineering industry as to where it can be most beneficial. If your industry could benefit from industrial biotechnology make your voice heard. Articulate what you want to see in the next generation of resins and polymers. Work with chemical engineers and microbiologists to find entirely novel solutions. Incorporate these materials in to your products and collaborate with our companies to make improvements. Engineers can influence the next generation of materials from the ground up. Those willing to be the early adopters, could reap huge rewards in terms of efficiency, sustainability, functionality, and profitability.  

Steve Bagshaw is the Chair of the Industrial Biotechnology Leadership Forum