Towards a Bio-based Manufacturing Platform for High Strength Aramid (Aromatic Polyamide) Synthetic Fibres Using Synthetic Biology

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: Chemistry

Abstract

There is a pressing need to unite and extend capabilities to take biomaterials synthesis to a new level, by developing strategies that enable rapid assembly of biological polymers and their subsequent (targeted) chemical elaboration to generate a diverse range of bio-derived materials. The game changer is the ability to re-write DNA to encode modules / polymers of interest and/or to design assembly production lines that enable rapid exploration of combinatorial monomer/polymer space with massive expansion in biomaterials diversity.

Creation of microscopic living foundries to produce and secrete materials (and their building blocks) with properties that can be genetically encoded is embedded in the new science of synthetic biology. Automation is critical to explore and facilitate the modular construction and combinatorial assembly of synthetic DNA. Re-writing DNA draws inspiration from refactoring, a process used to improve computer software. Synthetic biologists use refactoring to re-build natural systems, from the ground up, to provide engineered surrogates that are easier to understand. Better understanding facilitates predictable engineering, a key objective in the emerging field of synthetic biomaterials which is founded on the underlying principles of the new biology termed synthetic biology.

Synthetic biology can drive next generation synthetic biomaterials discovery, production and manufacture, and there is a pressing need to do so. The new biology harnesses synthetic and systems biology, and leverages engineering expertise and the integration of biotechnology, evolutionary biology, chemical engineering, molecular biology and genetic engineering. The step-change here is rapid development of bio-based production methods for scale-up / scale-out using a variety of production hosts (e.g. mammalian and fermentation approaches; natural hosts) that enable rapid isolation and chemical / biological elaboration of new materials. Because of the combinatorial approach there is a need for automated high throughput assembly of these production pipelines, and the the possible outcomes are almost limitless.

In this proposal we embrace these new technologies to give access to the microscopic living factories that are capable of synthesizing the building blocks for established and new aramid-based polymers that have widespread civilian and military applications. We aim to develop a scaled versatile production platform, which accommodates rapid ultra high throughput screening of polymer building blocks prior to more intensive downstream recovery of selected building blocks from expression hosts. The emerging science and technology will facilitate sustainable manufacture of established and new aramid polymers that will translate also to similar production platforms for other established or novel biologically derived materials. Our approach should also lead to the discovery of new aramid polymer properties that will create opportunities for their use in existing and new military or civilian applications.

Planned Impact

The project will underpin sustainable manufacture of aramid fibre materials using SynBio methods, and more generally will inform strategies for wider materials synthesis and discovery using SynBio approaches. Sustainable manufacture will enable transitioning from traditional petrochemical feedstocks and the use of SynBio methodology will also enable exploration of new materials / properties that may not be accessible using more conventional manufacturing approaches. The project will therefore benefit the broad materials science community in that it will provide major opportunities to explore new functional properties and offer sustainable routes to their production. The societal and economic impacts from this research programme will be realised through (a) the development of specific target materials (sustainable production of existing and new aramid fibres) and (b) broader training and development of synthetic biomaterials 'know how' that will translate readily to other materials projects. The work will contribute to the training of skilled individuals comfortable with working across the synthetic biology / materials processing / materials evaluation interfaces and appreciative of the need to pursue research innovation in manufacturing in a responsible manner.

The beneficiaries of the research are the materials and chemicals synthesis companies, end user industries (multiple applications) and emerging white biotechnology industries, which increasingly need to work in partnership to identify novel, cross-discipline solutions to sustainable materials manufacture. Aramid fibres are widely deployed in multiple military and civilian applications. Sustainable manufacture and the emergence of new materials with novel properties will underpin and expand further their use in these and new applications.

We will train a new generation of scientists not constrained by discipline boundaries who can bring synthetic biology approaches to modern sustainable manufacturing. These scientists will be equipped to work seamlessly across the biology, materials and polymer synthesis disciplines, and be comfortable with both experimental work and theoretical modelling in process development for materials manufacturing and basic discovery science at the interface of materials science and bioscience disciplines. Our approach will be led by the needs of industry, ensuring that this new generation of scientists is trained to work across sector boundaries with the ability to integrate industry need into state-of-the-art materials synthesis programmes. The scientists will work with experts in Responsible Research Innovation based in the SYNBIOCHEM Centre to ensure that deployment of synthetic biology technologies into manufacturing practices are informed, ethical and that they satisfy regulatory aspects. This will require input from real-time assessment and anticipation of research and innovation trajectories, deliberation and reflection, and collaborative development.

The proposal maps strongly into EPSRC challenge themes, in particular Manufacturing the Future. It also recognizes the need to integrate synthetic biology methods into materials discovery and manufacturing, which is a major driver for next generation materials.

Publications

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Description The main outcome of this project was a new method for the incorporation of graphene into high-performance Aramid fibres such as Kevlar. Although the fibres we produced didn't have any distinctive properties such as enhanced strength or electrical conductivity, the new method of processing opens the door for other researchers or companies (i.e., those with more specialised fibre spinning equipment) to refine the technique and potentially combine the beneficial properties of graphene with Aramid fibers. Additionally, we developed a previously unreported technique for the visualisation of graphene (and aggregated graphene) within the fibers - via cross-polarised visible light microscopy - which could be employed by other researchers to facilitate their research into advanced graphene-composite materials. Furthermore, a bespoke piece of equipment designed to handle, heat and homogenize Aramid polymer solutions dissolved in highly corrosive solutions (e.g., fuming sulphuric acid) was designed and built.
A biological production route for terephthalic acid (TPA) production from p-xylene (p-X) in a standard production host (Escherichia coli) and a non-conventional production host (Halomonas TD01) was developed. New genetic tools and approaches were developed to engineer stable, low cost production strains. These tool were successfully applied to generate a strain for production of p-toluic acid, an intermediate in the TPA production pathway. Work to complete a strain engineered for the complete conversion of p-X to TPA is ongoing.
Exploitation Route - The new homogeniser equipment will be used in future projects for the production of bio-derived fibers.
- Pending funding approval, the new fibre spinning rig will facilitate the production of new synthetic and bio-derived fibres in Manchester for years to come
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology

 
Description Northern Powerhouse
Geographic Reach Local/Municipal/Regional 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a national consultation
 
Description Future Biomanufacturing Research Hub
Amount £10,284,509 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/S01778X/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2019 
End 03/2026
 
Title Aramid polymer solution processing 
Description A novel piece of equipment was designed and built; this equipment was designed to heat and homogenize concentrated aramid polymer solutions in highly corrosive solvents (e.g., fuming chlorosulfuric acid) 
Type Of Material Technology assay or reagent 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact n/a 
 
Title Graphene visualisation 
Description A novel technique for the visualisation of the distribution of graphene and aggregated graphene in aramid fibres via cross-polarised visible light microscopy 
Type Of Material Technology assay or reagent 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact n/a 
 
Description MIB Open Day Stands/Tours 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact At Institute Open Day members of research group presented exhibits on topics of enzyme catalysis, synthetic biology, light activated biology and 'proteins' in general. Also demonstrated use of laboratory equipment on lab-tours run for attending students. Event was well received by both students and their teachers and seemed to inspire interest in the subject.

No defined impacts realised to date
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012,2013,2014,2015,2016