From traditional pulp and paper to biomedical applications?

Rapid technological advancements in biomimetics can result in the near future in major breakthroughs within life science and the biomedical sector. Biomimetics involves mimicry of complex biological systems. The important lessons learnt while investigating for example the construction of plant cell walls can, with access to the right tools and technology, provide a biomimetic model for advanced materials design – possibly even result in the future development of structures for the replacement of some human tissues.

The Swedish Center for Biomimetic Fiber Engineering (Biomime) and the KTH Advanced Carbohydrate Materials Consortium (CarboMat) are multidisciplinary Centers of Excellence with cutting edge expertise at every level of the formation, modification and industrial utilization of microbial carbohydrates and plant (wood) fibers and their constituent polymers. But what do natural carbohydrate polymers have to do with life science applications? The answer is: everything.
By understanding the structure, self-assembly and advanced properties of complex plant cell walls, we also create understanding of how to use the cell wall as a biomimetic model for advanced materials design. The developments have a great potential to contribute to the innovation of intelligent nano-materials for integration in, for example, prosthetics and pharmaceuticals.

Cost is the greatest challenge
While it is evident that mimicry of the natural self-assembly of cell wall macromolecules has a high potential to contribute to the future development of intelligent nano-materials, the developments are still at an early stage.
“Our greatest challenge is to implement economically-viable processes for the large scale production of innovative materials with a high-added value. But the required basic research and its translation into new material applications is by itself expensive, and requires substantial amounts of funding. Support is needed at every step of the value chain, from product innovation in research laboratories to proofs of concept and market applications. We have several industrial partners supporting us through these processes and without them we would not be where we are today. In most instances, we still face challenges, however, in reaching commercial potential as new high-tech biomaterials typically bring a higher cost to the producers. A cost that they are not likely to accept easily. Therefore, we must clearly demonstrate that the benefits of using our innovative green materials can override the cons related to cost”, Principal Investigator Professor Vincent Bulone explains.
“Despite the high cost, we have constructed some everyday items that consist of superlight materials that are at the same time extremely robust and can be used for replacing the strongest available products derived from petroleum. It can for instance be envisaged to use biomimetic composites in the automotive industry, e.g. to produce car panels, for incorporation into electronic devices, or for building prostheses. While green composites have excellent properties and are at the forefront of development, our challenge remains the same. High material costs will prolong the time to market”.

Great potential in the biomedical sphere
The very same natural fibers that are exploited in modern pulp and paper industry can just as well be used for biomedical applications including for example microsurgery. With the available Biomime and CarboMat developments, technologies can be combined to natural fibers and applied in the future to the biomedical sector. However, as Professor Bulone highlights, there is an even higher cost issue when we think of sophisticated products for biomedicine.
“Forestry is a very large and complex industry. Over the years, the investments in modern pulp and paper machinery have been so important that the forest industry must continue to produce very large volumes in order to survive. However, at the same time there is a new challenge as the demand on traditional paper products has changed over time. Our forest industry must therefore find new areas of application, although the culture is far from being ready for drastic changes of direction. I am not saying that forestry should jump to microsurgery, but there is a great potential in investigating new areas and the biomedical sphere has a lot to offer. It must be possible to run parallel businesses based on the same natural resources – forestry – that combine the large-scale production of common products (e.g. packaging materials) with the production of smaller volumes of more specialized high-tech products with a high added value (for e.g. the biomedical sector)”.

Biomime and CarboMat in short
Professor Vincent Bulone is the Director of Biomime and CarboMat since 2009 and 2012, respectively. Biomime was founded in 2006 with support from the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research (SFF) and comprises collaborative groups from the Schools of Biotechnology and Chemical Science and Engineering at The Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), the Umeå Plant Science Center (UPSC) and Innventia. CarboMat is a spin-off Center of Biomime, sponsored by the Research Council FORMAS since 2010.

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