Biotechnology contributes to environmental and economic sustainability

The use of biotechnology in industry invariably leads to processes that are more environmentally friendly than those they replace, and leads to a reduction in either or both operating and capital costs, according to a new study published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

The Application of Biotechnology to Industrial Sustainability contains a number of case studies from a variety of industrial sectors including pharmaceuticals, chemicals, food, paper, minerals and energy, particularly with regard to the use of biomass renewable resources and bio-processes – namely bio-catalysts and enzymes. The report concludes that it is in the interests of governments from both developed and developing countries to promote the appropriate use of biotechnology to substantially reduce emissions and the use of hazardous raw materials, consuming less energy and reducing by-products and waste production.

“The case studies suggest that decision-makers regarded environmental friendliness as secondary to cost considerations, but it is sometimes difficult to separate the two, since the reduction of an input usually means a reduction in cost as well,” says the report.

The case studies in the report include that of Xylanase – the most commercial of the pulp and paper enzymes, used for bleaching pulp in the paper industry, and is one enzyme that has replaced chlorine which has been the industry’s bleach of choice for a century. Iogen, the company that has developed and now uses the process, has found that it requires high levels of service and monitoring, using installed computer monitoring at the mills linked to the company’s computer in Ottawa.

Another case study example is the use of cellulase enzymes to convert plant fibre such a straw – biomass – into sugars that are then fermented and distilled to make ethanol fuel, which has far less greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuels and contributes to a decrease in smog and local air pollution.

Over the next few years, the report’s authors predict that there will be a number of major facilities producing industrial materials and chemicals from renewable sources, and an incremental incorporation of bioprocesses into a wider range of industrial manufacturing. “All the case studies point to a future in which the use of renewable resources and the new biotechnological skills, such as functional genomics and pathway engineering, will enable the manufacture of materials, chemicals and fuels in cheaper, more environmentally friendly ways and thereby improve levels of industrial sustainability and quality of life generally,” concludes the report.

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