Large, 1,000-liter steel vats at a complex on the Edgewood side of Aberdeen Proving Ground somewhat resemble those found in a microbrewery. And, on a rudimentary level, the process scientists at the research lab there are using is similar to making beer, albeit more complicated.
Using brewer’s yeast, sugar and advanced genetic engineering, APG scientists are using micro-organisms to make unique chemicals and substances that cannot be made through traditional processes, according to Peter Emanuel, U.S. Army senior research scientist for bioengineering.
Those vats, and the scientists working at the facility, shepherd microbes through a process that begins in a petri dish and ends with materials with a variety of applications — from potentially doubling the capacity of a scuba tank to protecting soldiers against harmful chemical or biological agents.
“The real power of synthetic biology is not that it can make a chemical you can get in a different way,” Emanuel said. “It can make things you cannot make any other way.”
What’s happening at APG, Harford County’s largest employer, is the beginning of the bio-manufacturing revolution, Emanuel said; one that could decrease America’s dependence on foreign chemicals and translate into military and commercial products enabled by some of the smallest forms of life.
The process is effectively tricking bacteria into performing certain functions, Emanuel said. Scientists engineer a microbe’s DNA that, once read, changes its behavior and directs it to make certain materials.
The selected microbes start in a petri dish and are put in a fermenter the size of a microwave for a day or so before being transferred to an infuser vat the size of a dump truck.
After three days of monitoring, bubbling and spinning, the mixture is processed in another machine, which renders it into a thick porridge from which the material can be skimmed, pressed out or otherwise derived.
The finished materials can be in the form of powder or liquid, but they comprise chemicals usable in everything from carpet to car tires. Those goods often require petroleum or natural gas-derived chemicals commonly manufactured on a large-scale in expensive facilities that require a significant amount of energy.
Bio-manufacturing, Emanuel said, could offer a lower cost and often more eco-friendly solution.
“All we’re putting into this is basically sugars and beef broth to feed [the micro-organisms],” he said.
While theoretically any cell could be used for bio-manufacturing, scientists prefer using brewer’s yeast and Escherichia coli because they are simple and safe to work with.
The 25,000-square-foot facility is primarily a research lab, Emanuel said, but it is able to supply larger quantities of bio-manufactured material for others to develop prototype products. The center is collaborating with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and other organizations to make new goods that could eventually trickle out to the consumer market.
Using traditional petrochemical manufacturing processes to make materials is like using a blunt instrument, Emanuel said, while bio-manufacturing is more akin to a lancet. He said scientists have greater control over the microbes’ products than other methods.
But change is slow, Emanuel said. The field of bio-manufacturing is still developing, and it is sure to cause a geopolitical stir, he said.
Using bio-manufacturing, the U.S. could domestically manufacture important chemicals to maintain supply lines to its troops and supplies to the nation, he said. As companies outsource manufacturing jobs overseas, that could leave the U.S. vulnerable to supply line disruptions if other countries are disinclined to trade.
Other counties like China have signaled their intent to accelerate bio-manufacturing programs, Emanuel said, and the U.S. government has thrown billions of dollars on a domestic effort.
Emanuel said the burgeoning industry can have local benefits as well. The lab is currently allowing students from Harford and Cecil counties, as well as other Maryland universities, to get hands-on experience in the lab.
Bio-manufacturing jobs, he said, are in high demand and well compensated, a trend that will likely increase as they overtake traditional production.
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“Gradually over time, they will be supplanted by bio-derived materials,” Emanuel said. “How much can biology make? The answer is we’re still figuring it out.”