Next-gen circular materials are alive (and ready to evolve)

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The response to this series of articles on next-gen materials has been feverish. It appears to have opened the doors to labs and manufacturing facilities around the world, sending a deluge of materials innovations and technology platforms, all of which have a role to play in replacing toxic and wasteful materials in place. in resources. Accordingly, this series will be extended, but today we travel to Polybion HQ in Mexico, to unravel nature’s most elegant and efficient integrated material recycling and production unit: bacteria.

Nature’s Circularity Solution

In a world where industrial recycling infrastructures are fragmented and ill-equipped to ensure the circularity of materials, a solution in nature has been staring us in the face, literally, forever. Bacteria are Earth’s most abundant species and simplest organisms, evolving over 3.5 billion years, surviving mass extinctions and extreme environmental variations along the way. This has made them very resistant and efficient in carrying out biochemical reactions in symbiosis with nature. These reactions include the metabolization of waste products into nature’s building blocks – no industrial infrastructure is needed.

Why bacteria?

The simplicity of bacteria as single-celled organisms makes them microscopic powerhouses that produce useful substances (including cellulose) during their natural metabolic processes. Guanajuato-based startup Polybion is taking advantage of this, adding a layer of bioengineering to recode the genes of bacteria to orchestrate specific metabolic outputs, thereby creating new biomaterials. The first of these is a cellulose membrane, which the bacteria bio-assemble into a “skin” that can be tanned and used as an alternative to leather, which they call Celium®.

When it comes to leather alternatives, Mycelium, which is derived from fungi, has seen a surge in interest, winning favor with brands such as Allbirds who work with NFW. mirum, and Hermès with the fine mycelium of Mycoworks. So why does Polybion use bacteria instead of fungi, and what is the difference between the material outputs?

Battle of microorganisms: bacteria against fungi

During a video interview with the Polybion team, co-founder and CEO Axel Gómez-Ortigoza explained that “bacteria have simpler genomes and are easier to genetically modify” than fungi. And taking cues from nature, he added that cellulose is the most abundant (and perhaps the most versatile) polymer on the planet; Thus, with the bacteria that produce it, the potential for scalable, modular, high-yield biomaterials is immense. The high yield of bacteria is the deciding factor, he added, providing faster scale-up and more predictable and reproducible material outputs than fungus-based alternatives.

How is Celium® made?

Polybion uses local agro-industrial food and water to feed its artificial bacteria in an industrial fermentation unit. The bacterium grows the cellulose membrane on the surface of the water by consuming glucose and fructose from food waste and polymerizing them into cellulose, which takes 20 days.

The membrane is removed and transported to a nearby tannery where it is stabilized (to stop the process of living decomposition) and tanned using a chrome-free method that is TO REACH and compliant with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Importantly, stabilizing and tanning Celium does not require any new infrastructure, just optimized chemistry and water use in existing tanning facilities. This entire process, from raw material to finished “skin,” takes place within a 30-mile radius of Irapuato, Guanajuato, Mexico.

Descaling of bacterial cellulose

In December 2021, Polybion launched “the world’s first industrial-scale bacterial cellulose textile biofabrication facility”: a 14,500 square foot, solar-powered, carbon-neutral facility. Celium production volumes at this pilot plant are currently 350,000 square feet per year, increasing to 1.1 million by Q4 2023.

Production volumes partly depend on locally available waste, but there is no shortage of this (as is the case for any place on the planet with both people and industrial agriculture). Fruit waste within a 30-mile radius of FOAK I (Polybion’s pilot facility) could produce 165 million square feet of celium per year, equivalent to 1% of the global leather market.

During the video interview, Axel and his co-founder, CFO, and brother, Alexis Gomez-Ortigoza, predicted the technology will scale “10X” after pilot capacity is reached in 2023, backed by the grant of technology licenses to drive fast (and probably European).

Innovation-driven mindset

It’s important to note that the R&D to reach this stage of production took 6 years and was done with, incredibly, only 4 million euros ($4.4 million). This CapEx is tiny compared to similar next-gen hardware innovations, so how did they manage to do so much with so little? The brothers say this is the result of the strict prioritization of technology development and the focus on science-based problem solving, and the avoidance of marketing and promotional expenses during the development stages. Axel’s excellence in bio-engineering and Alexis’ financial experience, added to the knowledge and infrastructure of the nearby leather industry, also undoubtedly helped. I believe one of the main takeaways from this interview is the promise of ingenuity and perseverance, even in the face of modest financial resources. It’s also a fair, and probably overdue, reminder that critical innovation happens all over the world – in every corner, in every region, and in every culture.

Sustainability gains

Celium’s sustainability gains are proportional to the adoption of biological processes instead of synthetic ones. Microorganisms do not need clearing or daily replenishment of water. They are not methane emitters, unlike cattle, and avoid PU and PVC which cause microplastic pollution. In fact, Celium is a holistically engineered biomaterial, as opposed to the vast array of plant-based and plastic leather alternatives on the market which are composites of plant fibers and plastic polymers that make them marketable as ” vegans” but environmentally suspect.

Polybion provided some numbers on resource consumption to flesh out the impact reduction: “Tanning cowhide uses about 30 liters of water per square foot. By comparison, Celium’s stabilization process uses around 5 litres”; Its tanning also avoids heavy metals including chromium.

Regarding up-cycling, 1,200 tonnes of fruit waste will be processed per year at maximum capacity, avoiding the emission of approximately 3,000 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. Celium’s carbon footprint comes entirely from transportation and logistics and amounts to 0.792 kilograms of CO2eq per square foot. I balk at material impact comparisons, but to share the information they’ve provided for context, Polybion puts Celium at about half the emissions impact of animal and plastic ‘leathers’. The calculated impacts of Celium will be disclosed in detail upon receipt of the final Life Cycle Assessment (LCA).

Target audience

The startup’s collaboration and expansion strategy is to target affordable and high-end global luxury brands that produce high volumes. “We work with forward-thinking global consumer brands across multiple sectors ranging from affordable luxury to premium and high-end,” shares their Head of Communications and Culture, Gabriela Irastorza Dragonné. Their partner brands cover the fashion, accessories, footwear and automotive sectors, and the technology they have developed is also suitable for materials covering the food and pharmaceutical industries.

Innovation roadmap

With a Series A funding round under its belt, led by Blue Horizon, Polybion’s next program is to genetically engineer strains of bacteria to improve Celium’s performance, hand feel and overall appearance. They are looking for recombinant materials (from organisms with recombined genetic material) never before seen by mankind, engineered and grown using the “molecular palette” of life. The result? Hybrid organic metamaterials. Meta indeed, thanks to 3.5 billion years of nature’s wisdom combined with advanced technology and human ingenuity: perhaps the best recipe for the next generation of environmentally friendly materials.

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