The Materials Superhighway

May 18, 2015 |

New physical materials — stronger than steel, stiffer than Kevlar, lightweight, conductive, non-toxic, and highly absorbent. 

New liquid fuels and chemicals — strong on performance, price, and emissions.

New edible materials — lighter in unhealthy fats, and delivering more targeted nutritional benefit with fewer side effects from obesity to diabetes.

A revolution in physical materials is occurring — aimed ultimately at displacing and competing with all physical commodities, such as steel, aluminum, chromium, plastics, crops, fuels and chemicals — a process which has already begun and will substantially accelerate in this generation — of which advanced fuels, chemicals, bioproducts and advanced food and feed are the earliest signs.

The Superhighway includes thousands of replacement molecules that are just now making it into the market. These are platform technologies that have been licensed or invested in by virtually every major oil, chemical, steel, and automotive producer.
The materials will not only be seen in the world around us, but within us. Wound healing, cell culturing, bone reconstruction, implanting — based in high tensile strength, elasticity, biocompatibility, and technological flexibility

The new physical materials can be stronger than steel, stiffer than Kevlar, lightweight, conductive, non-toxic, and highly absorbent.  The edible materials will be lighter in unhealthy fats, and deliver more targeted nutritional benefit with fewer side effects from obesity to diabetes.

The energy materials will burn more cleanly, will include higher energy density options, reduced emissions such as SOx and NOx, and offer lower costs per mile for transportation.

The headline performance benefits: comparing spider silk, kevlar and steel

Material Toughness Tensile Strength Weight
Dragline spider silk 120,000-160,000 1,100-2,900 1.18-1.36
Kevlar 30,000-50,000 2,600-4,100 1.44
Steel 2,000-6,000 300-2,000 7.84

What’s material toughness? That’s the “energy required to break a continuous filament, expressed in joules per kilogram (J/kg),” according to Kraig Biocraft Labs.  A .357 caliber bullet has approximately 925 joules of kinetic energy at impact

The technical drivers

The Superhighway will be technically powered by a revolution in the cost and speed of genetic sequencing and will be driven by performance.

The most comparable thing we can say about genetic sequencing is that it is a Moore’s Law environment — though it has been substabntially faster than that in the past few years. Billion-dollar sequencing efforts have come down a few hundreds of bucks.

Just this week, we saw news confirming the trend from NatureWorks, who tipped a broad new initiative to support the growth of the additive manufacturing market. The company’s move to support the 3D market comprehensively is based on a three pronged approach. It includes the introduction of an entirely new series of Ingeo grades designed specifically for PLA filament for the 3D printing market; a full suite of technical support services for the additive manufacturing industry’s leading 3D printer and filament producers; and the creation of an in-house print lab, enabling the company to rapidly test new Ingeo formulations and collaborate with printer and filament producers.

NatureWorks’ PLA filament has become a material of first choice in printing, because the material’s low polymer thermal shrinkage allows high resolution printing for part accuracy and avoids warping of parts. Strong polymer fusing performance makes PLA easy to use and enhances performance. A relatively low melt point enables safe lower temperature printing, and very low emissions means no unpleasant odors when printing.

The revolution in materials is ultimately an outcome of the Digital Revolution — but is based in physical materials with lower-cost, lower-weight, higher tensile strength, improved energy density, improved handling, reduced carbon footprint, and diversified sourcing. 3D printing, nanocellulose, aerogels, graphene, and synthetic spider silks are just a handful of the new materials.

Who’s doing what

Companies like Amyris, Solazyme, LanzaTech, NatureWorks, Genomatica, Rennovia, Verdezyne, Rivertop Renewables, Green Biologics, Gevo and many others are examples of companies developing products for the Materials Superhighway.

Some will be used for energy, some for food and feed, some for temporary or permanent structures including replacement for plastics and metals. Many will be made from sugars, many from methane.

The when, the how, and the how much

The specifics of when and to what extent the new materials will replace the old — that will depend to a great extent on how much the incumbents are able to respond, onm financial conditions, and on the pace of innovation itself.

Based on experience in other sectors such as petroleum, in the long-term up to 30% shifts in market share and more than 50% price drops could be expected in commodity markets impacted by the Superhighway.

Nanocellulose typifies the trend

Nanocellulose is, according to American Process’s Kim Nelson, an “abundant, sustainable, renewable resource with price stability, based on the huge availability of woody biomass around the globe. Compared to old materials, she notes, it is lightweight, has dimensional stability and high strength, is stable against temperature and salt addition, has high optical transparency, high thermal conductivity and low oxygen permeability. Besides these performance features, it is “compostable, biocompatible, non-toxic, has a reduced carbon footprint, is recyclable and re-usable,” Nelson told delagates to a recent BioEnergy Development Consortium meeting.


In the near-term, the USDA estimates the nanocellulose market asize at 34 million tons per year, Nelson said, noting that nanocellulose is tracking at roughly the same development pace as plastics, and could be expected to reach as much as 200 million tons of demand after 2050.


Innovation is at the heart of the Materials Superhighway, and Nelson’s description of recent advances in American Process’s BioPlus nanocellulose exemplify the trend. Today, nanocellulose has both water-loving and water-repellent varieties — a cost equivalent to conventional polymers and a temperature stability of 50-100 degrees celsius above that of earlier-generation nanocellulose. with BioPlus, American Process has developed a proprietary method of coating nanocellulose particles with hydrophobic lignin that allows incorporation into plastic composites.

“Thank you, plastics. We’ll take it from here.”

This solves — via a low cost, hydrophobic component of biomass known as lignin. This is the tough material that gives strength to cell walls and allows plants and trees to stand up, and is used in BioPlus is the coupling agent with polymers.


Why is that important? Because cellulose is highly polar and hydrophilic, while most plastics (polymers) are non-polar and hydrophobic. That’s been “the Grand Challenge of dispersing nanocellulose in plastics”, Nelson told the BDC meeting in Denver this month.

As American Process puts it, “Thank you, plastics. We’ll take it from here,” — pointing to options such as BioPlus compostable bags — strong, renewable, compostable, made from PLA and BioPlus nanocrystals.

Lightweighting vehicles

Reducing a vehicle’s weight by just 10 percent can improve fuel economy by 6-8 percent. The U.S. DOE’s target vehicle weight reduction is 50% by 2050. According to the DOE the limiting factor in use of lightweight materials in vehicles is “availability of sufficient quantities at affordable cost.”


In the case of nanocellulose, we’ll see development of a sprayable binder resin system containing nanocellulose as a reinforcing phase to replace steel in seating assemblies. There’s an opportunity to achieve commercial application on electric vehicles where every pound reduces the need for battery size, and eases the technical challenges on battery development.

3D printing

Consider the applications of nanocellulose, as a breakout early-stage star on the Materials Superhighway, in 3D Printing. A project has emerged at Oak Ridge National Laboratory to print a golf cart from nano cellulose reinforced polymer using Oak Ridge’s Big Area Manufacturing (BAAM) facility.

In this case the objective is to reinforce 3D printing feedstock with high temperature stability, highly dispersable BioPlus-L to obtain desired mechanical properties for load-bearing parts. The result would be the replacement of high cost, peutroleum–based carbon fiber as reinforcing agent for high temperature polymers like ABS, PLA, Nylon 6,6, and PC with renewable, bio-based nanocellulose.

Over in the world of graphene

The new materials include graphene as well.

Just this week, a team led by ORNL’s Ivan Vlassiouk has overcome one of the barriers to using graphene at a commercial scale. Graphene, a material stronger and stiffer than carbon fiber, has enormous commercial potential but has been impractical to employ on a large scale, with researchers limited to using small flakes of the material.


The team fabricated polymer composites containing 2-inch-by-2-inch sheets of the one-atom thick hexagonally arranged carbon atoms. While most approaches for polymer nanocomposition construction employ tiny flakes of graphene or other carbon nanomaterials that are difficult to disperse in the polymer, Vlassiouk’s team used larger sheets of graphene. This eliminates the flake dispersion and agglomeration problems and allows the material to better conduct electricity with less actual graphene in the polymer.

“Before our work, superb mechanical properties of graphene were shown at a micro scale,” said Vlassiouk, a member of ORNL’s Energy and Transportation Science Division. “We have extended this to a larger scale, which considerably extends the potential applications and market for graphene.”

“In our case, we were able to use chemical vapor deposition to make a nanocomposite laminate that is electrically conductive with graphene loading that is 50 times less compared to current state-of-the-art samples,” Vlassiouk said. This is a key to making the material competitive on the market.

If Vlassiouk and his team can reduce the cost and demonstrate scalability, researchers envision graphene being used in aerospace (structural monitoring, flame-retardants, anti-icing, conductive), the automotive sector (catalysts, wear-resistant coatings), structural applications (self-cleaning coatings, temperature control materials), electronics (displays, printed electronics, thermal management), energy (photovoltaics, filtration, energy storage) and manufacturing (catalysts, barrier coatings, filtration).

Co-authors of the paper, titled “Strong and Electrically Conductive Graphene Based Composite Fibers and Laminates,” are Georgious Polizos, Ryan Cooper, Ilia Ivanov, Jong Kahk Keum, Felix Paulauskas and Panos Datksos of ORNL and Sergei Smirnov of New Mexico State University. The paper is available here.

Synthetic spider silk

What about synthetric spider silk? As KraigLabs points out here, “It has long been known that certain fibers produced in nature possess remarkable mechanical properties in terms of strength, resilience and flexibility. These protein based fibers, exemplified by spider silk, have been the subject of much interest due to spider silk’s incredible toughness.

While scientists have been able to replicate the proteins that are the building blocks of spider silk, two technological barriers that have stymied production (until now) are the incapacity to form these proteins into a spider silk fiber with the desired mechanical characteristics and to do so on a cost-effective basis. In Kraig’s case, they applying their proprietary genetic engineering spider silk technology to an organism which is already one of the most efficient commercial producers of silk: The domesticated silkworm.

Kraig envisions that this genetically engineered spider silk, with its superior mechanical characteristics, will surpass the current generation of high-performance fiber. We believe that spider silk is in some ways so superior to the materials currently available in the marketplace, that an expansion of demand and market opportunities will follow spider silk’s commercial introduction. For example, the ability of this natural silk to absorb in excess of 100,000 joules of kinetic energy makes it the potentially ideal material for structural blast protection. The table below illustrates spider silks incredible toughness and strength yet weighing less.

Elsewhere, we reported in 2013 that Sweden’s  Spiber was looking to be ready ready for mass production of its Qmonos spider silk fiber, sourced from microorganisms, via an operational pilot plant in 2015, with a target production rate of 10 tons a year. In the meantime, Spiber plans a joint venture test plant, working with Kojima Industries.

Other researchers anc companies are working on the new materials. University of the Pacific’s Dr. Craig Vierra demonstrated the procedures in 2012 to harvest and process synthetic spider silk from bacteria.  His research group’s mechanical actuator can reliably stretch fibers to a specified length, mimicking the spider’s natural post-spin.

If scientists could reproduce the mechanical properties of spider spun silk in the laboratory, the material could be used in wide variety of products, ranging from bulletproof vests and aircraft bodies to bridge cables and medical sutures.

As we speculated in 2011 in The Digest, “Could microbes ultimately be taught a whole range of otherwise artificial chemical pathways? Right now, there’s emphasis on using microbes to ferment a basic oil or alcohol, followed by upgrading to a more valuable material through more conventional petrochemical processes. But, what about direct production, through advanced synthetic biology. It’s something that Solazyme works on, and LanzaTech is now embarking on. Where will it take us? Polyethylene fibers spun by micro-spiders? Silk-and-steel hybrids milked continuously from CO-munching e.coli? Microbes that scrub ambient CO2 and eat natural gas, to produce exotic, hyper compressible fuels with energy densities far beyond today’s molecules? Well, we get ahead of ourselves.”

Maybe not so far ahead of ourselves as we suspected at the time. Just this week MIT’s Markus Buehler, CEE research scientist Zhao Qin, Harvard University professor Jennifer Lewis, and former Harvard postdoc Brett Compton unearthed a significant relationship between spider web structure, loading points, and failure mechanisms. “By adjusting the material distribution throughout an entire web, a spider is able to optimize the web’s strength for its anticipated prey,” the researchers found. Science Daily’s Kelsey Damrad observed that “spider webs consisting of uniform thread diameters are better suited to bear force applied at a single point, such as the impact coming from flies hitting webs; a nonuniform diameter can withstand more widespread pressure, such as from wind, rain, or gravity.”

“Spider silk is an impressive and fascinating material,” Lewis said. “But before now, the role of the web architecture had not yet been fully explored.” To investigate the geometric aspects of spider webs through the use of a similar material to silk that can be 3D-printed with uniform mechanical properties was Lewis’ mission.

Beginning in fuels and drop-in chemicals

Initially, we have seen a focus on fuel replacement driven by concerns over carbon attributes, energy security and based in local economic opportunity. The fact that these are large markets dominated by a unpopular cartels is another factor.


These fuel capacity-building efforts have not come accompanied by economy-scale innovation in infrastructure — rather, a handful of companies and governments have pushed hard on flex-fuel vehicles and new blender pumps, and engine technology has embraced electric-fuel hybrids — by adoption is typically limited by fuel blending “saturation points” such as the E10 ethanol limits for most vehicles made between 1995 and 2000, E15 limits for most behicles made 2001 through 2015, and the cost of “old economy” materials in the new electric cars.

On the chemicals side, replacement has been based on a transition from drop-in to novel molecules, primarily over carbon attributes and where opportunities for “same as” or “lower than” prices exist.

But we see the market ultimately transitioning to novel molecules with performance rather than price as the primary driver — a value-driven opportunity rather than cost-driven. Positive carbon attributes will be a secondary driver of adoption.

Over in the EU, a substantial report prepared by E4tech this week looks at the opportunities for making transitional fuels and chemicals from sugars.

E4tech writes:

There are 33 products of particular interest, given the level of industry activity, and as highlighted by US DOE’s “Top10” biochemicals and IEA Bioenergy Task 42 reports – the majority are primary products (first step after sugars), with some key intermediates added (e.g. ethylene.”), and E4tech added 8 additional downstream bio-based polymer pathways (PLA, PET, PBS, PEF, PE, PMMA, and PIP).

E4tech looked closely at the progress from lab to commercial-scale.

“The number of years for a bio-product to reach commercialisation depends heavily on economics (value proposition), drop-in vs. non drop-in (existing demand and infrastructure), conversion technology type, and partnerships (up/downstream supply chain integration). Successfully reaching TRL8 from TRL5 could take around 10 years in a supportive policy environment – but some routes may never be commercialised due to unattractive economics.”

Bio-ethanol is the dominant sugar platform product, followed by much smaller, but still significant, markets for n-butanol, acetic acid and lactic acid. Xylitol, sorbitol and furfural also show significant markets for chemical conversion of sugars, without petrochemical alternatives. The smallest bio-based markets are, as is to be expected, those of the earliest stage products, such as 3-HPA, acrylic acid, isoprene, adipic acid and 5-HMF.

Technical obstacles

Technical obstacles in existing pre-treatment processes include insufficient separation of cellulose and lignin, formation of by-products that inhibit downstream fermentation, high use of chemicals and/or energy, high costs for enzymes (although falling rapidly), and high capital costs for pre-treatment facilities. Opportunities, barriers and mitigations are discussed for each of the different pre-treatment technologies, along with TRL and developer activities.

Research gaps

E4tech identifies five major gaps

1. Lignocellulosic biomass fractionation: Substitution of corrosive chemicals, reducing the inhibition of downstream fermentation, improving hydrolysis efficiency via tailored enzyme development, and introducing processes that are flexible with respect to feedstock

2. Increasing product yields and reduced by-product formation in biological processes, reducing energy demand for product separation, and obtaining higher purity lignocellulosic sugars for use in chemical processes

3. Developing purification processes to obtain high purity monomers, development of novel polymers, scale-up of polymer production

4. Improved process integration along whole technology chain (feedstock to product) incorporating different disciplines, development of consolidated processing approaches, and consideration of interfaces between biological and chemical steps

Non-technical barriers

E4tech identifies four major barriers, “prioritised into their importance to the sugar platform”:

1. Demand side policy
2. Public perception & communication
3. Investment & financing
4. Feedstock

The E4tech report includes ten products in detailed case studies, with a detailed review of the bio-based product (description and pathways), the actors involved in its production (EU and rest of world, discussing plants and partnerships), the value proposition (production economics, greenhouse gas savings and physical properties), and the expected market outlook (expected growth rates, new volumes and markets opened up).

The Bottom Line

Like any Superhighway, safe entry must be controlled via a “dedicated lane” in which new entrants (technologies, countries) safely “reach critical velocity” before entering the main traffic flow.

We see the most affordable, sustainable, available, reliable and affordable entrance point to the Materials Superhighway is advanced fuels and chemicals. Particularly aviation fuels, for now. But we can see mounting evidence that the switch is taking place across an entire universe of materials, and should be seen more properly as a materials superhighway, rather than as a transition strictly within fuels, or chemicals, or nutritionals.

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