Biotechnology: the industrial revolution that is here and now
Being honest, if it weren’t for our recent work with Biome Bioplastics and the Industrial Biotechnology Leadership Forum I wouldn’t really have been able to tell you what the term “biotechnology” meant. Whilst this is obviously an embracing indictment of my own knowledge, I think it’s also typical of a sector that’s somewhat overlooked on the mainstream sustainability agenda but could be absolutely fundamental to meeting the challenges of a fossil-free future.
In a report released earlier this year, Jonathan Porritt estimated that the global market for these technologies could be anywhere between £150bn and £360bn by 2025 with applications across industry, agriculture, forestry, healthcare, and manufacturing. The UK has the potential to take a leading role in the development of biotechnology, with the total value to our economy estimated at between £4bn and £12bn.
All very exciting, but what exactly are we talking about here? Basically it’s all about the use of living systems and organisms in industrial processes or, in a brilliant simple definition by Porritt, it’s “making the best possible use of Nature’s raw materials”.
In the last week or so our work has led us deeper into the science of industrial biotechnology and I’ve been wrapping my brain around complex molecules, genetic pathways and aromatics. But whilst the scientific innovation is pretty impressive, what’s really important here is the positive impact the development of industrial biotechnology can have in moving us away from an oil-addicted economy and creating far more sustainable processes and products in our everyday lives.
This is what I was hoping to get a fix on as I headed to a Rushlight Event briefing on the opportunity and challenges of biomaterials last night, and I wasn’t disappointed. So here for the uninitiated are some of the key points that I took away from the evening; a crash course in the bioeconomy, if you will. (Many thanks to John Williams of NNFCC for an excellent presentation that I’m about to paraphrase liberally).
Materials and chemicals industries are currently almost wholly dependent of fossil carbon, but scarcity of supply and increasing cost mean that sooner or later that’s going to have to change. Fortunately, we are now in a position where it is feasible to use biomass feedstocks like protein, oil, lignin, cellulose, hemicellulose and starch for all of the products that are currently sourced from petroleum. The market for bio-based alternatives is rapidly expanding. Three years ago there were four or five companies active in this space, today there are over 80 companies commercialising over 50 commodity or platform chemicals for bio-based feedstocks.
Much of this activity is being driven by brand-owner uptake, particularly in the packaging space where the large volumes and short useful life of products make end-of-life concerns particularly important. But the drivers behind the adoption of bio-materials are not just about “green messaging”. The real value here lies in the ability of biotechnology to enhance existing materials. Bio-based chemical platforms offer greatly increased functionality as well and a broader range of applications in the market. John Williams gave the example of hemp composite in cars which is extremely lightweight, increasing fuel efficiency but also cheap and fast to grow, reducing the cost of the vehicle.
If I were to summarise the philosophy behind Life Size Media’s work, it would come down to the fact that sustainable products and technology will only be adopted if they do a job more efficiently, more intelligently, or more economically; just being “greener” is simply not good enough. That’s why I find myself becoming a bit of a bio-economy evangelist. This revolution is about product performance, technology development, production economics and feedstock economics. It also happens to be a whole let better for the planet.
Struggling to visualise how you make materials from plants? Watch our film ‘The Ugly Potato’ to see a humble spud transformed into a bioplastic flag.