Industrial biotechnology is a key technology for future economic development. It is the application of biotechnology to the eco-efficient production and processing of chemicals, materials and bio-energy. It utilises the extraordinary capabilities of micro-organisms and enzymes, and their diversity, efficiency and specificity, to make products in sectors such as chemicals, food and feed, pulp and paper, textiles, automotive, electronics and, crucially, energy. Many economies recognise this potential; this was made clear during the 2004 meeting of Science and Technology Ministers of the OECD countries plus China and South Africa.
Industrial biotechnology is a key technology for future economic development. It is the application of biotechnology to the eco-efficient production and processing of chemicals, materials and bio-energy. It utilises the extraordinary capabilities of micro-organisms and enzymes, their diversity, efficiency and specificity, to make products in sectors such as chemicals, food and feed, pulp and paper, textiles, automotive, electronics and, crucially, energy. Biological processes are generally more environmentally benign than industrial chemical processes as they take place at low temperature and pressure, have lower energy input requirements and lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Also, the raw materials for production are renewable, agricultural feedstocks.
Industrial biotechnology has achieved spectacular new growth and interest in recent years, mainly as a result of global interest in biofuels. This chapter reviews the drivers for this growth spurt. In the United States the interest has mainly derived from the desire for energy independence, and biofuels production has benefited from a wide range of policy support mechanisms, as well as massive public spending. In Europe there has been more interest in maintaining a competitive chemicals industry. Over 70 countries now have bioenergy targets. The drivers vary from stimulation of the rural environment, to concerns over climate change, to fossil fuel price volatility. It is also clear that Asia will have a major role in the future development of industrial biotechnology.
Emerging synthetic enabling technologies
Industrial biotechnology cannot grow simply by developing technology for commercial-scale industrial production. Now is a time of unprecedented progress in the life sciences and industrial biotechnology benefits from advances in a range of core technologies in molecular biology, especially high throughput genomics. This approach is being used to investigate microbial life in extreme environments such as deep oceans. Other technologies that can be used to modify and improve genes and enzymes are metabolic engineering and directed evolution. All of these technologies seem to come together in the new discipline of synthetic biology, which, although already a billion dollar business, is in its infancy. Synthetic biology offers the prospect of creating synthetic life forms and enzymes that either make new materials more effectively, or can create completely new products in a single organism that were previously not possible.
Trends in industry and products
This chapter examines recent trends in biofuels, bio-based chemicals and bioplastics. There is also some discussion of the future critical role of the integrated biorefinery. Biofuels have, unsurprisingly, dominated industrial biotechnology of late, and is reflected in recent country policies to promote biofuels production. The platform chemicals concept is explored and the platform chemicals that are likely to be important initially in the integrated biorefinery are identified. Bio-based chemicals also cover bulk, fine and specialty chemicals. Recent advances in biodegradable plastics and bio-based plastics have seen the market potential grow quickly as applications far beyond traditional packaging applications have started to emerge. In particular, the emergence of biobased thermoplastics is set to affect the plastics world significantly, with very steep growth predicted over the next few years. Biofuels have enjoyed a wide range of supportive policy measures, but bio-based chemicals and bioplastics have not.
Current high-visibility industrial biotechnology products
It has often been said that one of the reasons why investors are reluctant to invest in industrial biotechnology is the lack of tangible products and "blockbusters". This chapter describes some of the recent products that are emerging from industrial biotechnology. One of these has been predicted to be the first industrial biotechnology blockbuster in terms of sales. As the products become more visible, the investor climate should improve. It is worth noting that many of the products are components of everyday products, such as garments and tyres. Although consumers may not realise it, they purchase industrial biotechnology products in, for example, shirts which are a blend of cotton and bio-based textiles, and tyres containing bio-isoprene. Better recognition could greatly aid the market diffusion of bio-based products.
Business organisation and finance in industrial biotechnology
In the past industrial biotechnology has used traditional business models that may not be optimal for a high technology business that relies heavily on R&D. New ways of working are starting to emerge. This can equally be said of financing. At this stage there is an overwhelming need for large-scale production facilities and public as well as private investment are essential to underpin progress. At industrial biotechnology’s current state of development, intellectual property is not concentrated and there is plenty of room for entry of new players. A great many companies are small SMEs, many of them spinouts from universities. These companies often find survival difficult as it can be many years before they reach profitability. In many countries, strategies to help such companies survive are emerging.
A range of supply- and demand-side policies, from biomass production to waste and by-products, have been deployed to develop the biofuels industry. It is important to balance supply and demand incentives, but this balance is not easily achieved. As biofuels globalise, there is a need for internationally agreed standards and to enable free trade and stimulate markets and the use of life cycle analysis (LCA) to verify sustainability. There is as yet no policy arsenal for bio-based chemicals and bioplastics comparable to that available for biofuels. However, the integrated biorefineries of the future will probably depend on their production alongside high volume, low margin transport fuels to make refinery economics viable.
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