Biomanufacturing is one of the most intriguing technologies on the rise today, not least because it presents a bit of a paradox: Biomanufacturing is driving incredible, unprecedented technological advancements. This is all while being fueled by nature-based tools such as fermentation, enzymes and microorganisms — some of the oldest, most elemental processes of which we know. Biotech manufacturing uses these processes in place of traditional synthetic, energy-intensive processes that are used to create products including plastic, rubber, nylon, etc.
Throughout the rest of this piece, we will look at the biomanufacturing process in more detail — including specific manufacturing functions and industries that it may impact, as well as the benefits of biotech manufacturing.
A closer look: Biomanufacturing process details
Biomanufacturing relies on naturally occurring processes and reactions to produce an output — such as a material, product or chemical, to name a few — that would normally be produced through a synthetic process. In a broad sense, nearly all manufacturing is based on the use of energy, such as heat, to change the form of something. It vastly reduces this energy requirement in favor of production through natural reactions. Incredibly, the biological process on which nearly all biomanufacturing is based is a fairly common one — fermentation. Fermentation makes use of naturally occurring microorganisms and enzymes to carry out reactions. It is the source of some of our most widespread food products, such as bread and beer.
The functions and capabilities of fermentation have been no secret, as the process has been used for thousands of years. As manufacturers search for ways to increase margins, boost sustainability and innovate in productivity, however, researchers and engineers have identified new and creative ways to use fermentation for manufacturing.
Some of the processes in which biomanufacturing can be involved are as follows:
- Raw material production, including plastics, paper and textiles
- Chemical production, using fermentation to develop soaps, detergents and more
- Energy production, generating power from biomass
- Food fortification and enhancement through natural processes as opposed to additives and preservatives
In the next section, we will take a broader view of the industries that are impacted by these functions.
Biomanufacturing across industries
Building on the examples described above, biomanufacturing is already impacting a wide range of industries; that impact is well-positioned to expand. Some of these industries include:
- Building and construction: Beyond the fermentation examples described above, it is used in the construction industry in two primary ways:
- Biocementation: Uses microorganisms to make cement stronger
- Bioremediation: Uses microorganisms to break toxic substances into those that are safe to dispose
- Electronics: Presents exciting possibilities in electronic component manufacturing — including flexible printed circuits and touch sensors as well as internal and external housing components. Biotech is capable of producing paper-thin, flexible plastic-like materials and circuits at a fraction of the energy cost of traditional materials — spurring major innovations in electronics manufacturing.
- Consumer products: Used to produce all manner of consumer goods — e.g., beauty supplies, plastic products and components, nylon, textiles, paper, and more. The use of biotech processes in these fields can yield major benefits in cost and waste reduction.
- Food manufacturing: The basis of the fermentation process — enzyme and microorganism reaction — has found an ever-expanding suite of uses throughout food manufacturing. This includes:
- Vitamin and amino acid fortification
- Modifications for digestion improvements
- Antimicrobials that can extend the shelf life and safety of food products without artificial preservatives
- Pharmaceutical: The pharma and medical fields are natural fits for biotechnology. The industry has responded with numerous applications such as medicine and vaccine production, antibacterials, and controlled, on-demand molecule production. Perhaps most exciting is the potential to produce on-demand tissues and even organs through a “3D printing”-like process, creating perfect custom fits for individual patients.
Benefits of biomanufacturing
To conclude, we will explore a few of the main benefits that biomanufacturing offers — now and in the future:
- Energy use reduction: As mentioned throughout this piece, biomanufacturing replaces energy-intensive processes with naturally occurring processes that often require only sunlight and a controlled environment to be initiated. Processes such as continuous biomanufacturing — where processes occur on an ongoing basis after an initial catalyzation — further increase energy with a minimum of monitoring. Lower energy usage and costs benefit the environment, as well as manufacturers and consumers.
- Increased innovation: The advances that we are seeing represent exciting new frontiers — everywhere from the electronics in our pockets to medical developments that may impact public health for the world. The possibilities of this technology — along with the minimal energy use required for research and testing — are providing our best minds with the ideal jumping-off point to innovate across numerous industries and uses.
- Sustainability: In addition to lower energy use, materials and products created through biotechnology are easier and safer to recycle and dispose. The long-term sustainability of biomanufacturing may be able to solve many of the current problems of waste disposal and toxic material.
Biomanufacturing is truly one of the most exciting developments in manufacturing today, with its many uses and benefits apparent. It is only poised to continue advancing.