Bioreactors: Using organisms for making food and materials, 3D printing, and recycling

Bioreactors are vessels that provide an environment where organisms (e.g. enzymes or whole cells) can convert biochemicals into products. They be used for growing cells, producing enzymes, milk processing, tissue engineering, protein synthesis, for example.

Bioreactors are also used for making mRNA vaccines. The image above shows the bioreactor that BioNTech used for making the first batch of their COVID-19 vaccine. This bioreactor is now on display at the Deutsches Museum in Munich.

In this article, I focus on four bioreactor applications:

  • Food production
  • Making materials
  • 3D printing
  • Recycling

For each application, I want to provide you with starting-off-points for further discovery, not with comprehensive analyses.

To start, here is a snapshot of the search I did in Mergeflow (click on the screenshot to see the data):

A 360° overview across venture capital, markets, patents, R&D, news, and other "bioreactor" contents.
A 360° overview across venture capital, markets, patents, R&D, news, and other “bioreactor” contents. Access the data by clicking here.

Producing food with bioreactors

Food from air

Solar Foods makes proteins from CO2 that they capture from the air. And they work with the European Space Agency (ESA) to further develop their technology. The goal is to be able to produce proteins during a flight to Mars. They call their method Solein, and the schema below illustrates how it works:

Solar Food's bioreactor-enabled Solein process for making proteins from CO2. Image from Solar Foods.
Solar Food’s bioreactor-enabled Solein process for making proteins from CO2. Image from Solar Foods.

Growing artificial meat and seafood

Aleph Farms: Growing steaks from cells

Aleph Farms grows meat from cells, using bioreactors. Similar to Solar Foods, their method is not restricted to Earth: In 2019, they produced the first artificially grown meat aboard the International Space Station.

BlueNalu: Cell-cultured seafood

BlueNalu will make seafood from cells. They do not seem to have products in the market yet, so we’ll have to stay tuned.

According to Google, no dine-in at BlueNalu yet.
According to Google, no dine-in at BlueNalu yet.

Making materials with bioreactors

LanzaTech: Jet fuels, solvents, and cleaning agents from CO2

LanzaTech feeds captured CO2 into bioreactors to make ethanol, acetone, and isopropanol. Acetone and isopropanol can be used for making solvents, antiseptics, and cleaning agents. If you’d like to dig deeper into LanzaTech’s technology, here is an R&D paper that goes through some details:

Carbon-negative production of acetone and isopropanol by gas fermentation at industrial pilot scale

Ethanol is used for making jet fuel. To develop this business, LanzaTech has launched LanzaJet, in collaboration with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). The PNNL is managed by the US Department of Energy.

Here is a schematic overview of LanzaJet’s process, taken from their website:

LanzaJet's process for making jet fuel and diesel from ethanol. Image from LanzaJet's website.
LanzaJet’s process for making jet fuel and diesel from ethanol. Image from LanzaJet’s website.

Mango Materials: Bioreactor-enabled production of biopolyesters

Mango Materials uses bioreactors for making biopolyesters. Specifically, they make PHA pellets (PHA = polyhydroxyalkanoate). PHA pellets can be used for making bottles or jars via injection molding; fibers for making textiles, shoes, or backpacks; or films for flexible packaging, for instance.

Generally, R&D on PHA seems to be on the rise, as you can see from this screenshot from Mergeflow (taken on 10 March 2022; click on the image to see it in full size):

Science publications on PHA are on the rise. Screenshot from Mergeflow.
Science publications on PHA are on the rise. Screenshot from Mergeflow.

Back in 2017, Mango Materials had funding via SBIR, a US federally funded research program that supports SMEs:

A Novel, Membrane-Based Bioreactor Design to Enable a Closed-Loop System on Earth and Beyond

Notice again the reference here to space applications, similar to Solar Foods and Aleph Farms above. Not surprisingly, the funding for Mango Material’s SBIR project came from NASA.

BioPACIFIC: An R&D platform for bio-derived polymers

Supporting earlier-stage R&D is the BioPACIFIC Materials Innovation Platform. Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), BioPACIFIC aims to develop scalable technologies for producing monomers from from yeast, fungi, and bacteria (monomers can form polymers, via a process called polymerization).

BioPACIFIC was inspired by the Materials Genome Initiative (MGI). Both BioPACIFIC and the MGI aim to accelerate the development of new materials by combining computational approaches with lab-based methods.

3D printing with bioreactors

Bioreactors together with 3D printing have applications in tissue engineering, a field with growing R&D momentum. You can see this in the screenshot from Mergeflow below (10 March 2022; click on the image to see a full-size version):

Scientific publications on bioreactors and 3D printing. Screenshot from Mergeflow.
Scientific publications on bioreactors and 3D printing. Screenshot from Mergeflow.

For example, materials scientists Yu Shrike Zhang and Ali Khademhosseini, in collaboration with the US Navy, investigate these technologies for generating myocardial tissue:

Additive Manufacturing of Functional Myocardial Tissue

And researchers at the Zhejiang University School of Medicine hold a patent for using the methods for creating liver structures:

Implantable 3D printing artificial liver scaffold bioreactor

Bioreactors for recycling

Recycling PET

Currently, the most common method for getting rid of PET plastics is to dig a hole and dump the PET there. This is not only environmentally damaging per se; it also removes the PET from circulation.

But research by the US Department of Energy’s Bottle Consortium (no, not what you might think) has shown that using enzymes in bioreactors for recycling PET is very energy-efficient. “Recycling” here means “breaking PET down into terephthalic acid (TPA) and ethylene glycol; these are then precursors for new materials”. Here is the full paper:

Techno-economic, life-cycle, and socioeconomic impact analysis of enzymatic recycling of poly(ethylene terephthalate)

TripleW: Food waste to food packaging

TripleW is a company that transforms food waste into food packaging. They use bioreactors to turn food waste into lactic acid. This lactic acid is then polymerized into poly lactic acid (PLA). Then the PLA goes into making food packaging, but also toys, textiles, or car parts, for instance.


Featured image: Deutsches Museum / Krause

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