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March 26, 2008

“Biomaterials – the silicon of the future!”

INTERNATIONAL – That’s one hell of a headline, but not as out there as you might think. In a special report for BusinessWeek, Olga Kharif has explored a wide range of biomaterial research which is paving the way for the next generation of device materials.

“Viruses, silkworms, salmon sperm and potatoes are among the multitude
of living organisms that scientists are trying to harness”.

Inspired by Nokia’s Morph concept the article explores a wide range of new material technologies currently being researched. With Morph’s ground-breaking use of insulin derivatives which Mark Welland, head of Nanoscale Science Laboratory at the University of Cambridge describes as “a dream based on real technology” Khraif also looks at how materials traditionally used in artificial joints and heart valves are now being used to make devices.

“The bioscientists are building on half a century of research that had, until recently, focused chiefly on medicine. Biomaterials‚Äîmaterials that use part of a living structure‚Äîhave long been used in artificial joints, dental implants and heart valves.”Now, we are using the same technology for making devices,” says Rajesh Naik, biotechnology research lead at Air Force Research Laboratory, who is developing a thin coating made with silkworm silk. Applied to the outer shell of a device, this film could act as a sensor that, when touched, might detect that you’re coming down with the flu. “[Biomaterials] can be the silicon of the future,” Naik says.”

The article also looks at how rising oil prices has fueled an interest in exploring real alternatives and how Cereplast’s new bioplastic is being used by manufacturers in device casings.

“At today’s prices, Cereplast’s bioplastic, which is not biodegradable, costs about as much as traditional plastic.”

And it isn’t just casing material getting the bio-treatment. Researchers at MIT are looking at using nontoxic viruses to create batteries which could be 75 per cent smaller than current ones. “IBM researchers are using bacterial DNA to create superdense memory chips that would allow cell phones to store a terabyte of data”
The rate of development in bio-materials is rapidly increasing. Angela Belcher, a research from MIT who is working on virus-based batteries says

“A year ago, I didn’t think we’d be able to make these [virus battery] materials for larger electronics, but now, I think we might be able to even make batteries for cars.”