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DARPA is creating “reprogrammable microorganisms” to produce petrochemicals

Secretive US military research wing "aims to enable new concepts of operation for biomanufacturing that provide novel capabilities for national security.”

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency wants to reduce reliance on foreign gas and petroleum (Image: DARPA)

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has announced plans to use reprogrammable microorganisms to artificially manufacture petrochemicals.

DARPA, the US Military’s secretive research wing, wants to use biomanufacturing (the use of biological systems to produce molecules and materials) to reduce the fragility of its global supply chain and dependence on supplies of the petroleum and natural gas from which petrochemicals derive.

It has launched a programme called Switch which will create “run-time reprogrammable” bugs that “support a variety of possible manufacturing processes.”

The microorganisms will be held within a "benchtop switchable biomanufacturing platform" capable of producing petrochemical-derived products.

DARPA is offering $300K of funding for each contractor chosen to take part in Phase 0, which is dedicated to generating a "techno-economic analysis" and proposed design for the platform. It anticipates funding "multiple" contractors who are successful in this stage with up to $8M.

“The Switch program aims to bring programmability and long-term stability to the biomanufacturing process to enable timely, switchable product development,” said Dr. Matthew Pava, Switch program manager. “By engineering run-time reprogrammable platforms, Switch aims to enable new concepts of operation for biomanufacturing that provide novel capabilities for national security.”

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) currently relies on chemical products obtained from petroleum and petrochemicals as “the source of carbon-containing molecules required for virtually every aspect of DoD operations including food, pharmaceuticals, textiles, and more,” DARPA warned.

“Petrochemical manufacturing increasingly depends on vulnerable foreign supply chains, and current manufacturing practices cannot readily pivot to make different products, limiting the ability to adapt to market changes or DoD needs,” it continued.

“Given the diversity of useful commodities that are made with petrochemicals, there is dire need for alternative petrochemical-independent production processes that can manufacture these same commodities in an agile, reprogrammable manner.”

The problem with petrochemicals

Current petrochemical manufacturing practices cannot “readily adapt” to make different products, DARPA said. 

"Although some chemistry-based methods for distributed manufacturing are demonstrably versatile in their capacity to synthesize a wide array of different products, these methods all rely on organic precursors that are themselves petrochemical derivatives, which means these technologies are still fundamentally tethered to petrochemical supply chains," it warned.

The goal of the Switch program is to develop a biomanufacturing platform that enables flexible biosynthesis processes. This platform would allow operators to feed their worker-bee microorganisms various organic “feedstocks,” prompting them to produce certain chemicals to “enable robust, rapidly repurposable manufacturing.”

As the name suggests, petrochemicals are derived exclusively from petroleum and gas. When the supply dries up due to, say, a war in the vicinity of Russia or the Middle East, important commodities become more difficult to produce in the West. 

Technologies like biomanufacturing can produce petrochemicals, but are often designed with cost in mind rather than flexibility, so only produce a single type of product from a single feedstock input.

“Given that even non-petroleum feedstock supplies can be disrupted by natural, market, or geopolitical events, flexible processes would enable supply chain resilience and maintain production of important materials by consuming whatever feedstock is available at a given moment in time,” DARPA wrote.

A possible solution to make it possible to produce a range of organic molecules is to build production facilities that allow input of a range of feedstocks and output of a wider selection of products. 

“To this end, technologies that could be deployed in this existing infrastructure, particularly in a crisis-response scenario, would represent an immediate solution to establishing domestic resilience in chemical supply chains,” DARPA continued. 

The Switch program is designed to make it possible to produce petrochemical-pumping bugs by “enabling opportunistic consumption by switching between feedstocks” as well as “need-driven manufacturing that toggles between different products” and “co-opted capacity by temporarily and reversibly adapting existing biomanufacturing platforms” to “provide continuous production for long-term stability.”

“If successful, Switch will result in a suite of tools and approaches to engineer run-time reprogrammable microorganisms that support a variety of possible manufacturing processes, optimizing economic resilience and facilitating crisis response,” Dr. Matthew Pava, Switch program manager, concluded.