Ingenuity Lab blends technology and nature

Carlo Montemagno explains how the work he and his colleagues at Ingenuity Lab are conducting will help mankind harness the very building blocks of nature

Ingenuity Lab works across the disciplines of chemistry, engineering, physics, geology, biology, agriculture and medicine in order to understand the world

Since time immemorial, mankind has crafted its world through the creative manipulation of a small number of fundamental machines. In the agricultural and mechanical ages, from the printing press to the first aeroplanes, all the trappings of civilisation were crafted from the six fundamental machines of physics: the screw; the wheel and axle; the incline plane; the lever; the pulley; and the wedge. The modern electronic age was established through the addition of five fundamental machines to humankind’s toolbox: the diode; the transistor; the inductor; the resistor; and the capacitor. Our entire civilisation is founded on the creative exploitation of the properties of only 11 different building blocks. Everything from smartphones to electric cars to global positioning satellites are crafted from systems built from this very small number of discrete functional pieces.

Our entire civilisation is founded on the creative exploitation of the properties of only 11 different building blocks

But technological achievements pale in comparison to the complexity of biological achievements. The ability of living systems to transform matter and actively interact with the environment sets them apart from current systems made by man. This difference in complexity can be attributed to the fact that nature has tens of thousands of building blocks to work with instead of the 11 used by man. Think of the extraordinary systems humans could engineer if we had access to this incredible selection of tools.

Using nature’s building blocks
In the past decade and half, we have gained insight into the workings of nature at the smallest scales as we have developed the ability to manipulate, control and interrogate matter at the atomic level. But much of the promise of establishing new industries and economies founded on these scientific achievements has not come to pass. This is all about to change. With the foundations laid, the next 15 years are destined to see the application of these scientific advances in technologies that directly improve the human condition, creating both economic wealth and societal benefit.

The ability to use nature’s building blocks to manipulate matter a single molecule at a time renders many things possible that were impossible before. Living systems do this on a regular basis. Nature utilises molecules that convert energy and matter into multiple forms. These molecules have the ability to actively select, sort and transport molecules, and the capability to facilitate the exchange of information, thus enabling communication between molecules. The core challenge is how to transform a labile molecule that exists in a fragile living organism and transfer that functionality into a stable system that is economically scalable. The most significant difficulties revolve around environmental stability and the inherent structural limitations of the molecule.

Ingenuity Lab was created to bring together researchers from many disciplines to capitalise on the molecular interactions found in living systems and, through molecular manipulation, incorporate this functionality into complex systems to yield technologies for solving many of the world’s societal challenges.

Recent advances at Ingenuity Lab have enabled the technology to utilise nature’s fundamental machinery in engineered systems, thus establishing a whole new class of functional materials. Through the stabilisation and precision assembly of active biological molecules into engineering systems, we have enabled the incorporation of ‘metabolism’ into engineered devices and materials.

An example of this new technological capacity is the harnessing of an element of the photosynthetic cycle to transform CO2 emissions into valuable products. Through the incorporation of an element of life’s metabolism into an aerofoam, Ingenuity Lab has been able to incorporate ‘life’ into a man-made material. Because all the energy inputs are directed to transforming CO2 into products, this process is up to 20 times more efficient at producing value than plants. In fact, because this technology enables access to the complete metabolic cycle, it has the potential to transform CO2 waste into over 40 different valuable drop-in chemicals. This new technology is poised as a scalable and sustainable weapon to address climate change and simultaneously evolve waste into value.

The fourth dimension
In recent years, much has been written about 3D printing technology. Additive manufacturing has the ability to enable a significant transformation in the global economy, advancing the value of information, while distributing and reducing the costs of both capital infrastructure, and product and material transportation, and accelerating the evolution of products.

This technology relies on the use of specialty ‘inks’ that solidify into a defined structure using various processes. The most common 3D printers use a single material type, most often a plastic, to manufacture the final product. I equate this process to building the wooden framework of a tree. This technology allows control of the structure morphology to make the device light and strong, and minimise the use of material.

State-of-the-art 3D printing technology is directed at using multiple inks, such as plastics, ceramics and metals. This has the potential to make more complex products that exploit the advantages of different material properties, such as strength, flexibility, durability and conductance. This greatly expands the application opportunities, enabling the potential to produce items as varied as antennas in plastic cell phone cases, to high-temperature-, high-load-tolerant jet engine parts.

Advances at Ingenuity Lab have enabled the transition of additive manufacturing from 3D space to a four-dimensional, functional space. Through developments in stabilising a very large set of fundamental biological building blocks, the suite of blocks available to engineer complex systems has been greatly expanded. A new class of printable inks is under development that exploits this expanded set of tools to enable the incorporation of biological metabolism as an intrinsic property in the devices we assemble. Four-dimensional manufacturing will allow devices to actively interact and transform their local environments in many of the same ways living systems do. This next wave of technological progress will enable the creation of materials and devices that transform energy, and collect, process and act on information. This will be a low-cost technology that will provide many new avenues to address global challenges with solutions that can improve quality of life and prosperity for all. We have built our man-made world from a few simple blocks; with nanobiotechnology, we will be able to reshape nature.

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