The last decade has seen dramatic advances in using micro-organisms to manufacture highly specialized chemicals that the Department of Defense needs. These materials hold the promise of advancing how Soldiers are protected from chemical agent, how energetic molecules for propellants for explosives are manufactured, and how coatings can be used to obscure objects from light sensors.
The problem is how to make these materials in large enough quantities that they can be used to make actual prototypes, such as filters in protective masks or self-decontaminating uniforms.
Right now, very few research laboratories or industry laboratories can make these materials beyond the bench scale level – between one and five liters of liquid biomanufactured material. However, the Combat Capabilities Development Command (CCDC) Chemical Biological Center has a pilot fermentation facility at its Aberdeen Proving Ground research campus that currently makes batches of up to 1,500 liters.
Much like a microbrewery that produces beer, this facility uses bacteria in vats to ferment biologically active compounds. But unlike any brewery, the bacteria in these vats are injected with genetically engineered viral phages. Inside the bacteria cells, these phages produce more phages. When they are done reproducing, they burst out of the cells and are suspended in the liquid. They are then filtered out of the liquid, coated with polymer precursors, and cooked into a powder. The result is a polymerized phage – unique in nature because it is part virus, part polymer. The final step is to heat the polymerized phages at temperatures as high as 1,100 °C, which produces a black carbon, known as BioCNFs, that is much like charcoal.
Depending on the design of the polymer precursors, the resulting carbon can then perform a variety of functions such as breaking up mustard or nerve agent into non-toxic byproducts. Currently, much of the Center’s biomanufacturing has centered on creating carbon materials with high surface area and controlled porosity. This material is both very stable and very good at soaking up chemical agent.
“The phage produced in the vats is our manufacturing platform,” said Jared DeCoste, Ph.D., a research chemist at the Center who is heading up this initiative. “And we have a unique foothold in this process because of our ability to scale up production to batches of up to 1,500 liters.”
Bioproduction on that scale allows for entirely new research and development opportunities for research laboratories across the Department of Defense. Only a small handful of other research facilities in industry and academia can come even close to performing fermentation at this scale, and they are all overwhelmed with demand for their material. The Center is able to perform both fermentation of phages and the polymerization of phages, which makes the Center unique. That is why the Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA) has selected the Center’s pilot plant for seed funding in 2020 as part of its Living Foundries Program.
“The CCDC Chemical Biological Center has both the capacity to scale up production of these materials and possesses a deep understanding of the military end uses for this material,” said Renee Wegrzyn, Ph.D., the program manager for the Living Foundries Program at DARPA. “Ultimately, we hope to develop the ability to biomanufacture materials needed by the warfighter out in the field where they are operating. This has the potential to remove several logistical challenges by shipping out production strains to where they are needed to start the fermenting process and deliver capability in the field,” she added.
She sees this as part of a larger effort by DARPA to help create a 21st Century bio-economy that will develop highly advanced coatings, adhesives and polymers, novel fuels, and liquid crystals for a wide range of defense and civilian industrial uses. DARPA sees the Center as “a reliable resource to routinely and robustly scale and deliver molecules and materials for advanced development,” according to an August 2019 letter from DARPA to the deputy assistant secretary of defense for industrial policy supporting its funding for the Center’s pilot plant.
The pilot plant is located in a nondescript building at Aberdeen Proving Ground. It was originally built to replace an aging building in support of the binary chemical weapons program in the 1980s but never used. “We found a new use for it,” said Michael Kim, Ph.D., a research chemical engineer who is in charge of scaling up the pilot plant. “This is a good niche for us as an Army research laboratory. We are doing something very innovative, and most important, we are directly supporting the warfighter.”
Kim’s partner in this effort, Krystina Hess, Ph.D., a research bioengineer at the Center, agrees. “We’re working at the very forefront of an exciting new research area, and we are right up there with anything being done at the world’s top research universities. It’s very exciting and it fosters a lot of collaboration within the Center and with the top research universities.”
Their closest partner in academia is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Both Kim and Hess previously worked with their chief researcher in this area, Angela Belcher, Ph.D. at her laboratory at MIT. Currently, the Center and Belcher are actively collaborating on using the pilot plant to create ever more new materials for new uses of interest to the Department of Defense and industry.
“We have a true collaborative relationship with the Chemical Biological Center. I have never worked with a team I had better cooperation and collaboration with,” said Belcher. “The scientists at the Center are super smart and sharply focused on making a difference for the warfighter, as are we at MIT.”
Under the conditions of DARPA’s seed funding, DeCoste and his team have all of calendar year 2020 to demonstrate a success using an actual prototype. Filtration of chemical agent appears to be the most promising area for immediate results. But that is just the start. Once the pilot plant graduates from the seed funding phase to an up-scaled facility, it can supply researchers throughout the DoD with large quantities of made-to-order biomanufactured material. “We already have several DoD research laboratories and industrial partners asking to use our facility’s capacity as soon as we are fully online, and that number is only going to grow,” said DeCoste.
Article adapted from CCDC Chemical Biological Center Public Affairs.