Special-Edition Viewpoints Address The Pandemic Crisis

In May and June 2020, Explorer Viewpoints provided a set of analyses and scenarios that investigate the impact of the covid-19 pandemic on technology commercialization. Also featured: The Pandemic Crisis: Scenarios for the Future of Technology Development, a presentation summarizing three hypothetical future pathways for technology development in the wake of the pandemic.

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About This Technology

Biopolymers are polymers that are composed of repeating units of biological origin. In nature, such biopolymers are usually made of repeating units of saccharides, nucleotides, or amino acids. Aside from extracting biopolymers directly from biomass (for example, polysaccharides, nucleic acids, and proteins from cellulose, DNA, and collagen, respectively), scientists have developed ways to produce biopolymers (for example, polylactic acid) from biobased monomers using conventional chemical processes and to produce biopolymers directly in microorganisms or genetically modified organisms (for example, polyhydroxyalkanoates). The molecular backbone of such polymers may contain various additional chemical side chains that contribute to the polymer's functional characteristics.

Humans are making use of biopolymers for a variety of applications, including food, furniture, and clothing. In the past 25 years, interest in sustainable products has driven the development of new synthesis routes for the production of biopolymers such as polylactic acid from renewable feedstocks. Biopolymers must compete with existing petroleum-derived polymers not only in their functional properties but also in price. The economic argument for switching away from petroleum-based products is weaker when oil prices are low. Dramatic decreases in oil prices are reducing the cost of many petroleum-based polymers and are increasing the cost advantages these polymers have over most biopolymers. However, the ethos of renewable and sustainable processing is becoming central to many organizations. Therefore, biopolymers may still be a viable alternative to petroleum-based products at times of low oil prices. These key drivers act as a stimulus for R&D activity in microbiology, genetic engineering, plant sciences, fermentation, and purification technologies.

Natural biopolymers are also becoming established as materials with diverse applications. For example, spider silk has antimicrobial and other desirable properties—such as elasticity, strength, and biocompatibility—that suit applications in medical textiles, medical devices, regenerative medicine, cosmetics and personal-care products, clothing, and military equipment. Chitosan is another readily available biopolymer that has many end uses, from bulk products to pharmaceuticals and personal-care products. Cellulose is the latest addition to the list of natural biopolymers that researchers turn into novel materials—including nanocellulose and cellulose foam—that find use in a wide range of applications, from packaging, construction, and electronics to medical products and cosmetics. Novel fibers that show enhanced physical properties such as increased resilience and flexibility will have great potential for use in a broad range of end-user applications. Biopolymers' potential for new business opportunities is becoming a key driver of research activity and investor interest. Manufacturers of biopolymers will likely form partnerships with downstream products' manufacturers to commercialize their biopolymers. Other opportunity areas include industrial, medical, food, consumer-products, and pharmaceutical applications.

Nucleic-acid-based materials are increasingly finding use in a variety of applications, including drug delivery, agriculture, nanoelectronics, biocomputing, and biosensors. Although the technology remains mostly laboratory based, companies will need to monitor advances in the technology—such as CRISPR—that allow scientists to overcome the lack of fundamental knowledge. These advances may improve the pace of development and reduce the time frame in which opportunities can materialize and commercialization can occur.