While biomaterials are nothing new, a new wave of developments is progressing rapidly and very well could change the face of engineering and manufacturing as we know it.
The convergence of biotechnology, nanotechnology and IT is fueling scientists' and engineers' research budgets and imaginations.
"In countries with blossoming economies, such as China, South Korea, India and Singapore, governments have identified biotechnology [...] as a way to expand beyond basic manufacturing," explained a recent editorial at The San Diego Union-Tribune
. "They are spending billions to underwrite companies, build high-tech parks and help startup businesses cut through red tape."
The Bureau of Economic Analysis and National Science Foundation (BEA-NSF) Research and Development (R&D) Satellite Account
, which provides detailed statistics designed to facilitate research into the effects of R&D on the United States economy, determined that biotech-related R&D sources of business contributed to 27 percent of real GDP growth from 1996 to 2004.
The investment in, and use of biotechnology including biomaterials are not new, of course. Engineers in the 20th century customized and enhanced properties, creating higher quality, lighter, stronger and more adaptable materials for thousands of applications, including aircraft, medical devices and computers.
But developments in the material science are pushing engineering and manufacturing in new directions. The new wave of industrial biotechnology has already penetrated a slew of industries including chemicals, automobiles, plastics, consumer goods, textiles, paper and pharmaceuticals and altering all stages of production, from inputs to processed goods.
What exactly are biomaterials? Basically (very
basically), a biomaterial is any material natural or man-made that comprises whole or part of a living structure or biomedical device that performs, augments or replaces a natural function.
Biomaterials have primarily focused on medical applications, such as heart valves. Or a biomaterial may be "bioactive," used for a more interactive purpose such as hydroxy-apatite coated hip implants. A biomaterial may also be an autograft, allograft or xenograft used as a transplant material. As with artificial organs, replacement joints and imaging technologies, the mass production of biomaterials can be credited with improving the quality of life of millions.
So even if the development of biomaterials remains at status quo, the world would be a better place with than without, as the material is so frequently used to help people live longer, healthier lives.
But organizations, such as Canada's National Research Council's Industrial Materials Institute (NRC-IMI), aren't ready to rest on their biomaterial laurels just yet.
For instance, not long ago the R&D center developed a manufacturing process to develop metallic foams
. The unique, open-cell structure of the metallic foams "makes them attractive for the fabrication of biomedical implants as they are characterized by structures and properties matching those of bones." As the NRC-IMI puts it:
Their unique structure, corrosion resistance, biocompatibility and mechanical properties make these materials attractive for tissue attachment. The targeted applications are porous implants and attachments systems for orthopaedic and dental applications.
Here's what makes the recipe so special:
... corrosion potentials of [the organization's proprietary, titanium (Ti) foams] are superior to those of solid Ti in a SBF solution at 37°C. The presence of a thin oxide layer on the surface of pores, formed during the fabrication process, is responsible for this passive behavior of the materials.
While NRC-IMI and others like it are exploring the advancement of what are known to be traditional uses of biomaterials, a recent special report from BusinessWeek, entitled A Cell Phone Made of...Tapioca?
sheds light on more practical, everyday uses for biomaterials to build next-gen consumer electronics.
Viruses, silkworms, salmon sperm, and potatoes are among the multitude of living organisms that scientists at companies and universities are trying to harness to make better parts for computers, MP3 players, cell phones, and other devices.
Biotechnology is now being used not only for making devices, but also to create better, sleeker designs for a myriad of products.
Case in point: a battery being developed by an MIT researcher built with viruses that are nontoxic to humans. The viruses help molecules of gold and other chemicals bind together, catalyzing energy-producing reactions more efficiently than today's batteries. The result: A virus-based battery could be 75 percent smaller.
Here are some other examples of exciting biomaterials developments:
IBM researchers are using bacterial DNA to create superdense memory chips that would allow cell phones to store a terabyte of data, or about 1,000 digital copies of Encyclopedia Britannica.
Andrew Steckl, director of NanoLab at the University of Cincinnati, has used the genetic material from salmon sperm to make light-emitting diodes (LEDs) that last three to five times longer.
Companies such as Nokia, Motorola, Fujitsu, Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard and dozens of startups are pursuing this path. Three biotech companies ranked among the top 15 in Forbes' special report America's 25 Fastest-Growing Tech Companies
in January 2008.
While it stands to reason that many of these innovative ideas will never see the light of day, there are many that will, which can only mean it will change the face of engineering and manufacturing as we know it.
This, in turn, will create new and exciting job opportunities.
A 2004 BLS study revealed biomedical engineers will see employment growth that far surpasses all occupations through 2014. Biotech offers a variety of job opportunities in many fields from working in labs and going to chemical plants and agricultural fields, to those in energy, environmental management and health care. Biotech industrial jobs on the horizon include process development associates, who improve manufacturing processes and product yield, and reduce costs in fermentation and purification, and research new ways to enhance production.
Biomaterials can be "the silicon of the future," according to Rajesh Naik, biotechnology research lead at Air Force Research Laboratory, who is developing a thin coating made with silkworm silk.
David R. Butcher contributed to this post.
A Cell Phone Made of...Tapioca?
by Olga Kharif
BusinessWeek, March 17, 2008
Finding Greener Pastures at Home, Asian Scientists Leaving America
by Terri Somers
The San Diego Union-Tribune, Dec. 16, 2007
Research and Development Satellite Account
U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Sept. 28, 2007
Innovation in Biomaterials: Titanium Foams for Tissue Attachment
America's 25 Fastest-Growing Tech Companies
by John J. Ray and Paul M. Murdock
Forbes, Jan. 24, 2008