DeepTech is being heralded as the 4th wave of innovation - after the industrial revolution, corporate lab driven research and the emergence of venture capital backed small disruptive firms. It is gathering momentum and is now on the precipice of bringing out a paradigm shift in many old industries and how we think about unsolved problems. Like the internet back in the 90’s, deeptech is still in its nascency but holds enormous transformative potential.
We at pi are excited about what the future holds for all of us in different walks of life. We are excited to put together a series of stories called the “Deep Tech Stories” through which we will share our perspective on how the world is shaping up in the next decade or so. We will pick multiple areas based on the promising work being done in various research labs and emerging startups across the world. Each one of these stories will bring out a novel use case of disruptive technologies that aim to solve problems in a truly transformative way.
In this story, our focus is on biomaterials and how mankind is finding inspiration from nature to bring about a key shift - Materials to Bio Materials.The innovations underway in this field, which combine material science with biological systems, hold the promise to help us make a prodigious leap forward in the way we think about several conventional problems.
It is very interesting to see the transition - for the most part of the last century we were using materials directly from nature, whatever was available - in the last few decades we found a way to synthetically manufacture a large part of what we use - and in the next, we are going back to nature to learn and embibe how materials can be made incorporating biology. After all nature is the finest nano material factory ever made!
Materials to Biomaterials
The first synthetic polymer was invented in 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt, who was inspired by an outstanding offer of $10,000 for anyone who could provide a substitute for ivory. The growing popularity of billiards had put a strain on the supply of natural ivory, obtained through hunting elephants. By treating cellulose, derived from cotton fiber, with camphor, Hyatt discovered a plastic that could be crafted into a variety of shapes and made to imitate natural substances that were previously obtained from animals.
This discovery was revolutionary. For the first time, human manufacturing was not constrained by the limits of nature, which only supplied so much wood, metal, stone, bone, tusk, and horn. Now, humans could create new materials.
The development of new plastics such as Bakelite, which was not only a good insulator, but was also durable and heat resistant and could be moulded into almost anything, provided endless possibilities.
The unblemished optimism about plastic lasted until the 1970’s, when awareness about plastic living on in the environment forever and clogging oceans and other water bodies began to grow.
Today, we are at a stage where it is impossible to imagine a world without plastic – where computers, mobile phones, and most of the lifesaving advances in modern medicine use plastic in one form or the other. Yet, it is increasingly becoming clear that our systemic dependence on plastics isn’t sustainable.
Enter material engineering. New developments and efforts by governments, companies and scientists suggest that a true alternative to plastics is well within the scope of possibility. In fact, the newest generation of bioplastics is increasingly biodegradable and some are even compostable. The latter means that this type of bioplastics can be broken down completely into water, carbon dioxide, and organic waste by microorganisms in weeks at ambient conditions. LG Chem recently announced a new bioplastic - a 100% biobased material derived from corn-based glucose and crude glycerol, with improved flexibility and transparency over current alternatives.
Although plastic by itself is a crucial problem to solve, why stop there? Material engineering combined with biology has the potential to produce several interesting innovations
1) Biological Batteries
Battery production today is an energy-intensive process that produces considerable toxic waste. Novel developments in biomaterial engineering could produce batteries that assemble benignly while solving our energy-storage challenge. Interestingly, viruses can serve as nanoparticles (very small particles) that can both bind metal ions and provide a channel for electrons to travel from an external source through the battery electrodes. Scientists have been able to use the full gene engineering toolkit to modify viruses to make biological batteries.
Viruses' qualities could be adopted for nanoengineering by selectively reprogramming their DNA so that it functions as a scaffold for materials used in battery electrodes
Whether this viral assembly of battery electrodes can scale to a commercially viable level remains an open question. Battery production facilities today use a number of synthetic materials in their manufacturing process that is difficult to replicate with biological systems. However, especially today, when viruses presage death and destruction, novel research that favourably manipulates their biological mechanisms provides much needed encouragement.
2) Urine-test for early cancer detection
Early cancer detection has the potential to save millions of lives. One such solution to this uses nanoparticles.
Nanoparticles can have differing properties from their same element in macro form. Using iron oxide nanoparticles and some ingenious thinking, a research team from MIT has launched a new market-ready urine test, which uses the property of the fluorescence of these nanoparticles to detect cancer enzymes.
3) Carbon Capture
Large investments and initiatives are underway from politicians and industry alike, to capture carbon dioxide emissions and tackle climate change. Currently, the leading CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage) technology uses ‘amines’ suspended in a solution. This method has several problems – amines are inherently environmentally unfriendly, larger and heavier volumes are required, and the solution causes corrosion in pipes and tanks. Additionally, a lot of energy is required to separate the captured carbon dioxide from the amine solution for reuse.
A sample of the new material resting on a flower
New materials such as zeolites suspended in cellulose and gelatin have proven to be promising breakthroughs where material science innovation can help capture atmospheric CO2. The porous, open structure of the material gives it a great ability to adsorb the carbon dioxide.
4) Biologically Inspired Water Purification
Freshwater makes up 5 percent of the planet’s total water volume and most of that sits in ice sheets, the soil and the atmosphere. With 1 billion people lacking access to potable water today, and drought haunting both the developed and developing worlds, water purification is critical to human survival. Water is purified primarily by filtration and distillation, which are slow, expensive and energy inefficient. Turns out, the solution to our water challenge might lie in a protein in our own bodies.
Certain proteins in our body, called aquaporins can act as water channels that specifically allow only water molecules to pass through their membranes, acting as a sieve. This idea has been successfully tested in 2015, where astronauts used aquaporin membranes to filter the water they drank in space. Aquaporin, a Danish water purification company is using this technology to provide filtration systems across various use cases. Soon, they plan to launch faucet-based filtration systems for home-use.
AI, ML and other advanced technologies are already redefining global supply chains and business processes. But, much less publicized and yet much more disruptive is this confluence of material science and biology. They combine to leverage nature’s very own design principles and manufacturing machinery at the atomic level. Although yet in its nascency, with challenges such as scalability yet to be overcome, this could open up entirely new avenues of research and power economic growth, constrained only by the seemingly ever expanding boundaries of nature and limits of human thinking.
Stay tuned for more!