This simple-looking film will probably end up in your next smartphone, laptop, watch, or television. … [+]
This simple-looking film will probably end up in your next smartphone, laptop, watch, or television. It’s made by fermentation—the same process used to make bread and beer. The biomanufacturing era has begun.
Biology is the most advanced manufacturing technology on the planet. Every day, synthetic biologists around the world make progress in a quest to leverage nature’s genius as a manufacturing tool and to make biology easier to engineer.
This week, World Economic Forum Tech Pioneer Zymergen introduced Hyaline, a new bio-film for electronic applications. Hyaline may be the first fermented electronic products and is already in use in flexible circuits, display touch sensors, and printable electronics. The product merges the benefits of advanced bio-fabrication with traditionally manufactured materials.
In 2020, consumers will begin to see, touch, and use new products inspired by nature.
“Nature is the best manufacturing partner on the planet, but making new materials based on engineering nature is hard and making and delivering new materials from biology at commercial scale is even harder,” said Josh Hoffman, Zymergen’s Chief Executive Officer. “As a bio-fabricated film, Hyaline performs better than the competition and is manufactured sustainably. It has the potential to transform the electronics industry.”
Based in San Francisco, Zymergen’s technology platform brings together robotic automation, machine learning, and genomics, to tap into nature to design and manufacture the novel materials of the future. The company’s goal is to design, develop, manufacture, and market novel bio-based materials that compete on differentiated functionality across a wide range of industries, starting with electronics, personal care, and agriculture.
Hyaline is the first product created by Zymergen and its development partner Sumitomo Chemical, Japan’s second-largest chemical company, and a leading supplier to many electronics companies. Sumitomo Chemical operates businesses in a wide variety of industries including petrochemicals and plastics, energy and functional materials, IT-related chemicals, health and crop sciences, and pharmaceuticals.
Zymergen and Sumitomo announced their multi-year partnership in 2019. I recently wrote about Zymergen’s acquisition of enEvolv, a company using ultra-high-throughput technology to screen and select individual cells from among millions to find rare cells with the right genes and properties needed for biomanufacturing applications.
Electronic Films Soon Ubiquitous
You’re probably reading this article on one of the world’s 6 billion electronic devices that employ an electronic film. Electronic displays, printed circuit boards (PCBs), semiconductors all use electronic films.
Until recently, most electronic devices were manufactured on hard computer chips covered in transistors and other semiconducting elements. Those chips are inflexible, and similarly, our smartphones, laptops, watches, and televisions have been rigid.
Bio-based electronic films allow for the creation of applications that are smaller, lighter, and more battery efficient at a lower cost. They will accelerate the miniaturization and production of many devices and applications that sound like science fiction. For example, bio-films will make it possible to create flexible human-silicone interfaces in medical devices, motion-powered electronics, even wrist-wearable smartphones like those seen in the movie Black Panther.
Hyaline can be used to create thinner films that are foldable, flexible, and more durable. It can be used to develop full-screen touch sensors with new mechanical, physical, and optical properties.
Performance-wise, Hyaline has high-temperature features that enable faster processing times in manufacturing. As a printed circuit board, Hyaline can be printed and used at high temperatures, while eliminating epoxy and acrylic adhesive layers to create systems that are thinner and more flexible.
According to Hoffman, “We identified a market gap for moderately priced, high-performance films and set out to design and deliver a product that would outperform incumbent materials using biology. Hyaline demonstrates differentiated and sustainable performance optical and mechanical properties that were previously unavailable. It will enable a revolution for existing products and spark the imagination of designers creating next-generation products.”
Fermented Electronics Are Here
Unlike traditional computer chips that use silicon and petroleum-based products, Hyaline is bio-manufactured using fermentation — the ancient biological technique used in brewing and baking bread.
Increasingly, companies are demonstrating fermentation can be used to make things like jet fuel, vanilla, nylon, beauty products, and other items that ordinarily depend on petrochemicals. In addition, the petrochemical toolbox is limited, expensive and is running up against manufacturing bottlenecks.
Zymergen has already scaled manufacturing for Hyaline and is delivering products to users along the consumer electronics supply chain. Those firms have tested and validated Hyaline and will incorporate the bio-films into name-brand electronic devices.
“With Hyaline, we’ve not only demonstrated we can re-imagine how materials are designed and manufactured with biology, we’re showing we can deliver incredible new products that outperform competing materials,” said Hoffman. “In 2020, consumers will begin to see, touch, and use new products inspired by nature. We’re in the early days of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and Hyaline is proof that the revolution is real.”
Thank you to Karl Schmieder of messagingLAB for additional research and reporting in this article. I’m the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies that I write about—including Zymergen—are sponsors of SynBioBeta — here’s the full list of SynBioBeta sponsors.