How The US Dept. Of Defense Is Shaping The Bioeconomy Of The Future

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Fossil energy stakeholders have a new reason to worry. During the last weeks of the Trump administration, the US Department of Defense announced that it had lent some of its financial muscle to BioMADE, a sprawling program aimed at accelerating the growth of a domestic bioeconomy. One of the first shoes to drop is a a dandelion-based rubber substitute that could help push synthetic rubber out of the tire business.

The Bioeconomy Gets An Assist From The Pentagon

Plastics and other synthetic materials made from coal, oil, and natural gas have been sidelining biobased products for decades, but turnabout is fair play. The era of petrochemicals is coming to a close. A new, futuristic bioeconomy is beginning to take shape.

The new bioeconomy goes beyond subbing in paper plates and bamboo cutlery for plastic tableware. New developments in materials science and agricultural practices are pushing biobased products into new areas, and the US Department of Defense has taken notice.

To demonstrate its stakeholder interest in the new bioeconomy, in October of 2020 the DoD provided an award to the BioMADE (short for Bioindustrial Manufacturing And Design Ecosystem) program for innovation in defense-related biobased products. By April of last year, the program was up and running with its first project call.

“BioMADE’s vision is to build a sustainable, domestic end-to-end bioindustrial manufacturing ecosystem,” BioMADE explains, partly by accelerating “technology deployment to create novel, disruptive business models.

Redeveloping and scaling up existing biotechnologies is part of the plan, too. The program is designed to shepherd innovators through the early stages of commercialization.

Notably, BioMADE’s governance policies mirror the environmental, social, and governance principles advocated by private sector stakeholders, as well as goals for diversity, equality, and inclusion. Apparently the anti-ESG, “woke capitalism” canard has not gotten through to the DoD.

“A core feature of BioMADE’s mission is advancing and integrating the pillars of safety, security, sustainability, and social responsibility (4S) throughout its work,” BioMADE states.

“BioMADE is committed to promoting and advancing greater diversity, equity, and inclusion within the biomanufacturing field,” they emphasize.

Many Hands To Shape The Bioeconomy Of The Future

As a part of the national Manufacturing Innovation Institutes program, BioMADE is also networked in with the Manufacturing USA ecosystem, which is sponsored by the Energy and Commerce departments as well as DoD. All together, BioMADE has access to more than 120 network members including academic institutions and non-profits as well as industry stakeholders.

“Manufacturing USA is the brand used to describe a collective network of government agencies, their sponsored MIIs, and other Federal partners united to drive advancement in manufacturing technology and workforce skills,” the DoD explains.

“Each agency participating in Manufacturing USA executes its own unique mission and critical objectives to improve American manufacturing,” they add.

It’s about time. Back in 2000, the Committee on Biobased Industrial Products of the US National Research Council drew a bioeconomy roadmap aimed at positioning the US for a leadership role in the “global transition to biobased products with accompanying environmental benefits.”

The Committee envisioned the replacement of 25% of fossil-based feedstock chemicals with biobased ones by 2020, based on a 1994 benchmark. They also set a similar goal of 10% liquid fuel replacement by 2020.

The biofuel industry appears to have met their goal, but there is still a long way to go. The Committee set long term goals of 95% for feedstock chemicals and up to 50% for liquid fuels.

The Return Of The Dandelion Rubber

Dandelion rubber is one of the first projects to make it out of the Defense Department’s BioMADE starting gate.

Dandelions surfaced in the US as a rubber source 80 years ago, when World War II halted access to natural rubber from Hevea brasiliensis tree plantations. Dandelions can grow across large swaths of the world, but the rubber tree only grows in tropical and sub-tropical regions.

Interest in dandelion rubber faded after World War II. However, research continued apace. Dandelion rubber crossed the CleanTechnica radar in 2011, when Ford partnered with Ohio State University to develop a biobased substitute for petrochemical-based car mats, cup holders and other interior car parts.

Aside from the sustainability angle, supply chain fundamentals are also spurring renewed interest in dandelion rubber. Practically the entire global supply of natural rubber comes from Hevea brasiliensis, and in recent years a blight has been threatening rubber plantations.

Breeding for disease resistance is one option, but it takes years for a rubber tree to mature and begin producing rubber. In contrast, a dandelion crop can be harvested every six months.

The US Air Force & The Dandelion Bioeconomy Of The Future

The US Air Force came into the picture last April, when the Air Force Research Laboratory partnered with BioMADE, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, and the company  Farmed Materials on a project to use rubber from the Taraxacum kok-saghyz or TK dandelion to manufacture aircraft tires.

Among scores of dandelion species, TK has been identified as a leading replacement for the rubber tree due to its comparable molecular weight and physical properties. Nevertheless, AFRL and its partners are planning some improvements. In November, the AFRL reported that its first TK dandelion crop was successfully planted in Ohio, yielding seeds for future generations of breeding.

Chuck Joffe, the Chief Commercial Officer of Farmed Materials, explained that the project is a non-traditional one that establishes new goalposts for bioeconomic R&D.

“We are embarking on a new course with Goodyear to bring the latest technologies to agriculture, plant breeding and extraction processes that no one has ever done before,” he said. “It will increase efficiency and rubber quality dramatically.”

“We are less than 10 years away from demand [for natural rubber] exceeding supply,” warned Dr. Angela Campo, who is AFRL’s deputy program manager at BioMADE.  “The Air Force needs a secure supply chain of natural rubber…we don’t ever want to be in that position of not having a consistent supply of critical materials.”

More Bad News For Fossil Energy Stakeholders

The timeline calls for the Air Force to subject the new dandelion rubber aircraft tires to rigorous testing. Goodyear already anticipates using dandelion rubber throughout its product line, anticipating commercial production in about five years.

The Biden administration is also giving the bioeconomy another nudge. Last September, President Biden issued an Executive Order that maps out a “whole-of-government approach to advance biotechnology and biomanufacturing.”

The President drew attention to the key role of innovation in the bioeconomy, as reflected in new vaccines developed for the COVID-19 virus.

“Although the power of these technologies is most vivid at the moment in the context of human health, biotechnology and biomanufacturing can also be used to achieve our climate and energy goals, improve food security and sustainability, secure our supply chains, and grow the economy across all of America,” he stated.

Just last week, the USDA chipped in with a $9.5 million funding pot to be split among three new bioeconomy projects that propel biobased materials into petrochemical territory.

One involves transforming food waste to PHA-based bioplastics, another aims at deploying livestock manure as a binder for asphalt, and a third will convert soybean oil into low-cost material for repairing and reconditioning existing paved surfaces.

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Photo: “The initial planting of Kok-saghyz dandelion, commonly known as TK, is shown at the Amherst Greenhouse in Harrod, Ohio, July 28, 2022. The Air Force Research Laboratory kicked off a multimillion-dollar, multiyear program in spring 2022 with BioMADE, Farmed Materials and The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company to develop a domestic source of natural rubber from this dandelion species” (U.S. Air Force Photo / Jonathan Taulbee).

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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