Industry 4.0: The biological transformation is coming

forschung leben – the magazin of the University of Stuttgart (September 2021)

Biointelligence - how the dovetailing of biology, technology and computer science solves tomorrow's problems

Along with the digital transformation a biological transformation is also taking place, which will result in the production of an increasing number of so-called biointelligent systems.
biobased materials

The construction material is lightweight, has good insulating properties and is extremely malleable.

Prof. Arnd G. Heyer
Moldable building materials from fungal mycelium

The optimization of industrial production processes has long been inspired by nature. As Prof. Thomas Bauernhansl, head of the Institute of Industrial Manufacturing and Management (IFF), explains: “A sustainable biological transformation of industrial value creation is crucially important both for society and the economy and can no longer be postponed. “It could solve a lot of problems caused by such things as demographic change, globalization, the individualization of society, climate change and the increasing scarcity of natural resources throughout the world.” On Bauernhansl’s initiative, numerous institutes at the University of Stuttgart as well as the Fraunhofer Institutes IPA and IGB, the University of Hohenheim and other research institutions around Stuttgart have joined forces to found the Biointelligence Competence Center. But what exactly does biointelligence mean?

Growing structures for the construktion industry

Prof. Martin Ostermann, head of the University of Stuttgart’s Institute for Building Construction (IBK), for example, is researching the suitability of fungal mycelium for use as a construction material. “The goal,” Ostermann explains, “is to use this organic materialin structural engineering applications to develop an alternative to traditional inorganic construction materials.” His team is collaborating with a research group led by Prof. Arnd G. Heyer of the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomolecular Systems (IBBS). When combined with waste from the construction and agricultural industries, mycelium, a rapidly-growing organic material, forms a plastic. “The fine fungal strands,” as the sustainability expert goes on to say, “bind loose, particulate organic fibrous materials into solid molded pieces that can be used as construction materials when dry. It is lightweight, has good insulating properties and is extremely malleable.” Mycelium grows within a few days and requires no energy-intensive manufacturing processes. Itis fully compostable and can be fed back into biological cycles as a nutrient – in other words it is a bioinspired and biointegrated system.

Nature and technology – from inspiration to interaction

The process of biological transformation, the final stage of which results in biointelligence, can be divided into three modes of development: inspiration, integration and interaction. First, inspiration enables the application of biological phenomena that have evolved over millions of years to value-creation systems. Companies use this approach to develop new materials and structures (e.g., lightweight construction), functionalities (e.g., biomechanics), and organizational and collaborative solutions (e.g., swarm intelligence). This field of research is already widely known as bionics. The integration mode involves applying our knowledge of nature to actually integrate biological systems into production systems, for example by replacing chemical processes with biological alternatives or using microorganisms to recover rare earths from magnets or to produce hydrogen from garbage. Another example is the use of biological raw materials in architecture. 

fungal mycelium
Organic material: malleable building materials can be made from the rapidly growing fungal mycelium.

Hydrogen from the garbage can

Another project at the University of Stuttgart’s Institute for Energy Efficiency in Production (EEP) is taking things a step further: it involves the generation of energy that not only does no harm to the climate, but actually benefits it. As is well known, hydrogen produced by electrolysis using electrical energy can be converted into usable electrical or thermal energy in fuel cells. The residual energy in many waste materials can also be recovered in the form of hydrogen. The interesting thing about the special process, which was developed and analyzed at the EEP and the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation (IPA) is that capturing and storing the CO2, which is produced as a by-product, not only makes the conversion process climate neutral, but even has a positive effect on the climate. "The so-called HyBECCS processes (Hydrogen Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage), will be able to offset unavoidable greenhouse gas emissions in the future,” says project manager Johannes Full: “This increases the flexibility and efficiency of our energy system whilst actively counteracting climate change. Applying advanced IT systems for flexible and intelligent process control could increase the application potential even more. Then it will be possible to use biointelligent HyBECCS processes to solve significant societal and environmental problems." So this comprehensive interaction between technical, informational and biological systems represents the third stage of the biological transformation. It will gradually lead to new, self-sufficient production technologies and structures, which will then constitute biointelligence.

A vision of a technology-based demand economy

Biointelligent value creation will facilitate progress in many areas ranging from personalized healthcare to the intelligent organization of transportation and production systems to the decentralized production of consumer goods and food from renewable regional raw and recycled materials.

an advanced economic System is developing here that takes account of the physical constraints of our planet.

Prof. Thomas Bauernhansl
Climate-positive effects: The energy generated during waste incineration can also be converted in various ways - including as hydrogen

A sustainable, technology-based demand economy could emerge from a merger between biology, (production) engineering, and data processing. “An advanced economic system is developing here that takes account of the physical constraints of our planet,” says Thomas Bauernhansl, founding executive director of the Biointelligence Competence Center. He is convinced that: “we are creating new space for innovation across many disciplines in this way with enormous potential, including economic potential.” 

Editor: Birgit Spaeth

Professor Dr. Thomas Bauernhansl

University of Stuttgart
Institute of Industrial Manufacturing and Management (IFF)
Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA in Stuttgart
Tel.: +49 711/ 970-1101
Fraunhofer IPA



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