Don’t forget to hear Chris at DIF 2016 – click to find out more

As part of Circulate’s collaboration with the Disruptive Innovation Festival, we’re featuring insight from some of this year’s Open Mic contributors in advance of their performance at the DIF. Find out more at thinkdif.co, and don’t forget to tune into this session with Chris Forman. Chris will release a video on this subject on 18th November at 6pm GMT, and will host a live Q&A on 23rd November at 4pm GMT

Biology is the unparalleled master of additive manufacturing. Observing the formation of biomaterials, like wood or bone, allows biologists and material scientists to see what would be physically possible if we employed complex, multi-component feedstocks and non-equilibrium processes in our own additive manufacturing. Furthermore, while biomimicry of such hierarchical materials would undoubtedly increase the complexity and sophistication of our products, that is only part of the benefit.

The capabilities of biology extend well beyond organising materials. Ecosystems can also regenerate feedstocks, like soil or air, and employ a myriad of microscopic organisms to do so. A single handful of soil contains millions of microbes. In fact, if any single organism’s food is not replenished by the ecosystem the organism dies. The result is a closed network of organisms that is able to sustain itself. The inability to regenerate our feedstocks is an incredibly important issue; such a capability would solve so many other problems. Climate change, pollution, deforestation, inequality are all linked to this problem.

But what would such bioinspired additive technology look like, and how would it work? Could it replace our farms or even our factories?

As land pressure increases there are few places for economies to expand. Outer space is one option and the ocean floor is another. A third and less obvious route to new real estate is to reduce the size of our factories to the size of biological cells, and spread them out! In the same way that a jar of pebbles can accommodate additional sand and a jar of sand can accommodate additional water, shrinking our factories to the cellular level could make better use of the nooks and crannies of urban dwellings. By shrinking to the cellular level we literally increase the catalytic surface area available for processing chemical feedstocks. As Feynman said “There’s plenty of room at the bottom”. Combining Feynman’s notion with Smith’s  “Land, Labour and Capital” leaves us pretty much only one option.

However, as well as providing access to the untapped real estate in the walls of our houses – and possibly even direct solar energy transduction — the real magic of biological systems arises from DNA itself, which is a convenient digital handle that biology exploits to solve the feedstock regeneration problem. DNA encodes the instructions to build enzymes which are able to catalyse almost any chemistry allowing each organism to break down the waste streams of other organisms into food. By tweaking the digital information stored in the DNA of many creatures, biology is able to program feedstock regeneration into an ecosystem.

Taking that concept to the nth degree, what if we could digitally dial up any chemical from a barrel of feedstock in the basement, as easily as we could dial up a picture from the internet?  And what would happen when such sophisticated feedstocks were fed into a 3D Printer?

The Carbon 3D Printer
The Carbon 3D Printer

Perhaps the most exciting advance in 3D printing in recent years is CLIP, invented by Carbon3D, which allows a solid object to be pulled from a reservoir of liquid feedstock. Such a marvel is achieved by carefully controlling the chemistry of the solidification process. Oxygen diffuses into the system at the same time as a 2D laser image is projected onto it. Where there is both oxygen and light the monomers cross link to form a solid, which you can pull out of the liquid. Get the flow rates just right, and new liquid solidifies onto the bottom of the retracting solid structure, which can have almost any geometry you please.

The secret to advanced additive manufacturing is control over chemistry, which is precisely what enzymes do for biology. Consequently, in the future, the ability to digitally generate sophisticated feedstocks – possibly containing enzymes – might enable advanced forms of additive manufacturing in which we can spatially control the chemistry of an additive process. Perhaps we could develop structures akin to bone or wood but optimised for technological rather than biological applications using precisely the same materials and processes as biology.

Pulling all these remarkable ideas together we notice an incredible thing. Industry is currently building the ability to control feedstocks and assembly processes using digital information. Synthetic biology combined with additive manufacturing yields total digital control over the materials around us, from the molecular to the planetary, and this is precisely the tool we need to help us regenerate the natural reservoirs around us.

The marginal cost of changing DNA is tiny and allows big changes in feedstock or assembly to occur with relatively little effort. If the uptake of such technology expanded geometrically, the way computers have done, perhaps, in concert with natural biology, we would easily be able to control the levels of CO2 in our atmosphere in short order.

Indeed, companies like Organovo in San Diego have begun exploring the crossover between additive manufacturing and biology by printing out cells using 3D printers to generate replacement or pharmaceutical testing tissues such as livers, hearts and other organs. Other companies like Ecovative are producing materials using fungi, Modern Meadow is creating synthetic leather, Bolthreads is targeting synthetic silk and the list continues to grow!

Ecovative are finding new applications for their mycelium based material.
Ecovative are finding new applications for their mycelium based material

Perhaps synthetic biology can evolve into areas with entirely novel technological applications. What if our house-factory-farm could possess a synthetic kidney? May be we could filter useful molecules from waste water and pipe it back to where it’s needed?  Shampoo for example? Biocidal soap would never be released to the ecosystem and we could eliminate the packaging, transport, palm oil, and crude oil feedstocks associated with shampoo – and many other chemicals besides.

Indeed there is an economic incentive to take part in such a network of waste sharing companies. If a company used materials that could not be sourced from other companies, or dialled up from the basement, then the company would have to maintain the entire supply chain for the material itself.  

There is a danger though. If such a commercial circular economy did not replenish natural feedstocks to support life on Earth, then economics would succeed in replacing biology with an entirely orthogonal materials ecosystem and who knows if the resulting environment will be capable of supporting biological life at all? We are not free to choose just any circular economy. We must choose one that is compatible with biology.

Building synthetic biology into the foundation of our materials reprocessing system does more than digitise feedstock production and enhance the possibilities of additive manufacturing. It also strategically guarantees that our global economic system has a vested interest in maintaining the environment so it is appropriate for biology. Genetic engineering, far from destroying the environment, could well be the saving grace that allows us to unite industry and ecology, thus preserving the environment for biological systems, while adding economic value as a by-product.

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