The emergence of Industrial Biotechnology

Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, announced in January £35M of funding for research into Industrial Biotechnology (IB) and Bioenergy. This was a firm recognition that IB has huge potential for British businesses and will play an important part in creating a more sustainable economy.

Business is recognising the potential, but perhaps not as fast as it could be. Whilst some companies have already seen benefits from embracing the technology, there remain huge untapped opportunities to make products more sustainable and more cost effective.

The big challenge is a lack of understanding of what IB is, and what the opportunities are. This is understandable in a young market, and IB innovators and governments must play a role in addressing this.

IB is the use of biological substances to produce materials, chemicals and energy. It has the potential to replace current materials and processes – which are largely derived from petrochemicals – with improved, more efficient, more cost effective and more environmentally friendly alternatives.

It is increasingly being used to produce more sustainable plastics, textiles, paints, cosmetics, foods and fuels and this has important implications for businesses developing new products and for those using them.

One way to look at this is from the point of view of the carbon footprint of an organisation. We can identify high carbon emissions in key areas: in the production of the materials they use or sell, the energy they use to run their business, transportation, packaging, and waste disposal.

One company, for example, has modified e-coli to produce a compound which can be used to produce cheaper and greener materials such as spandex, running shoes and automotive parts. Another has developed a biotechnological ingredient to produce cosmetic skin products, while another company presented its low cost techniques to convert biomass and wastes into clean fuel and energy.

The list goes on. Bioplastics are being used in food services, packaging, automotive, consumer electronics and other consumer goods, and their potential is starting to be recognised in construction. Some bioplastics can biodegrade quickly, making them ideal for packaging; others are just as stable as their fossil-based counterparts, making them suitable for more durable products.

But it is not just materials. Bio-surfactants are being used in detergents, personal care products, food processing, agricultural chemicals, paints and paper production. Bio-lubricants are being used in engine oils and hydraulic fluids, making the whole manufacturing process more environmentally friendly.

However, the advantages go beyond carbon reductions, though this, and the associated cost savings, is clearly important. Biotechnology can mean fewer impurities, shorter manufacturing time, and reduced heavy metal use. It also allows for eco-friendly labelling – promoting sustainably sourced materials, low overall carbon footprint and more sustainable use and disposal.

All of this matters, whether it is a manufacturing company looking to improve products and processes, or a company further down the chain using or selling products that are, or could be, bio-based. Goodyear, for example, hopes all of its tyres will soon be manufactured from isoprene produced from biomass. Quality Street use bio based wrappers developed by Innovia Films.

Despite its potential, the biggest factor that could hold back IB’s expansion into industry is a lack of awareness.

Companies need to know what’s out there and incorporate it into the relevant parts of their strategy. They need to start talking to biotech firms to explore potential collaborations or alternative bio-based suppliers. They need to gain an understanding of what biotech can offer them and how to communicate that value to their customers. Help is on hand here from the government-funded IB Special Interest Group, which helps companies understand the relevance of IB to their business.

IB is not a panacea, but it should play an increasingly important part of companies’ sustainability strategies. In addition to being good for the planet, this is important for companies’ image and long-term profitability. In the long run, fossil fuel prices can only go up and these resources will eventually run out.

As climate change becomes an ever more concerning issue, consumers will increasingly avoid companies with unsustainable products and high carbon footprints. Getting on board with IB now is both a good bet in the short term and insurance against inevitable market changes in the future.

Colin Tattam is the operations director of Chemistry Innovation Knowledge Transfer Network

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