The industrial biotechnology opportunity

Materials World magazine
11 Jun 2014

Industrial biotechnology has a huge variety of applications. Yvonne Armitage, who helps to deliver the UK’s IB strategy on behalf of the Industrial Biotechnology Leadership Forum, explores the opportunities and pitfalls.  

Many of the products we use in our everyday lives – from fuel to plastics – rely on oil, which is decreasing in availability while increasing in cost. An alternative is to develop the chemicals we require from biomass.

Industrial biotechnology (IB) is the use of biological substances to produce materials, chemicals and energy. It has the potential to replace petrochemicalderived materials and processes with more efficient, cost-effective and environmentally friendly options. IB has been around for a long time – the concept of developing materials and energy from plants dates back centuries – but modern capabilities and chemical processes have opened up huge opportunities in this area. The UK in particular is seeking to become a global leader in the field. There are lots of great examples of IB innovations in sectors such as pharmaceuticals, homecare, bulk chemicals, agrochemicals, food, automotive, electronics and aerospace. Recognising its potential, in early 2013, UK Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts announced £40m of funding for research into IB and bioenergy.

Economics are one major reason for the excitement. There is increasing demand driven by consumer desire for sustainable products, the growing threat of climate change due to the increase in greenhouse gases, and rising oil prices that are making petroleum-based chemicals less attractive. But recent advances have also changed the game. Our ability to understand and manipulate organic substances – often relatively cheaply – is opening up a huge range of new processes and materials developed from biomass.

New processes for new materials

Many IB processes are being developed from plant material and microorganisms. Sugars, oils and other compounds in biomass can be converted into platform chemicals directly, or with further downstream processing steps similar or the same as those used by the petrochemical industry.

A relevant illustration comes from DuPont, which makes polymers from corn for use in carpets and textiles. In this process, glucose is extracted from corn and fed into a vat containing genetically engineered organisms, as well as a suitable growth medium. The organisms metabolise the glucose and generate the three-carbon molecule 1,3-propanediol (1,3-PDO). The PDO monomer is reacted with terephthalic acid, to create Sorona, a polymer. This is extracted in long strands that are chopped into pellets and shipped to a textile plant where they are spun into fibres for clothing and carpets.

Scientists are harnessing the ability of microbes to generate monomers derived from biomass and are achieving scale by engineering them to overproduce the molecules. These monomers are often being used as drop-in replacements for existing compounds. The processes have all been made possible, and are being made ever faster, through advances in technology, understanding and computational power.

Advances in genomics and proteomics are allowing us to analyse and manipulate genes and proteins with precision and accuracy. We are able to alter microbes and enzymes to process new chemicals, produce new metabolites and speed up reactions very readily. Computational advances have played a huge role in bringing IB forward. Powerful computers can look for specific genes and model many manipulation alternatives to quickly zone in on the ones we want. The time to achieve the same result in purely lab-based experiments would often be so extensive as to negate any value in the eventual outcome.

Of course, it’s important to remember scale up and more traditional engineering of the process. The Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) and its dedicated National Industrial Biotechnology Facility (NIBF) is proving to be key in demonstrating new IB processes at pilot-scale to speed up commercialisation. NIBF offers expertise and state-of-the-art facilities including development laboratories, pilot facilities and demonstrator facilities for anyone to work with the CPI to try out their new processes. This underlines another important point – much of the recent success has been down to a shift in the way people work together. The old model of separate chemistry, biology and engineering (and even IT) departments is fading and universities are increasingly merging faculties. Funding models are also changing to encourage universities to work with industrial partners to get funding that benefits both parties. All of this is good news for IB, which relies on such a wide range of expertise, technology and financial support.

IB innovation
However good the science is, proof of success is in the results, which is why IB supporters are excited. And a significant number of companies, both large and small, now have commercially viable IB products. Bioplastics are a good example. They are being used in food services, packaging, automotives, consumer electronics and other consumer goods, and their potential is starting to be recognised in construction. Industrial biotechnology has the potential to change the world of plastics, significantly reducing costs, increasing functionality and improving performance. It’s not just about making plastic biodegradable. Biotechnology is versatile – some bioplastics can biodegrade remarkably quickly, making them ideal for packaging while others are just as stable as their fossil-based counterparts, making them suitable for more durable products.

Another example is isoprene, one of the key components used in the production of tyres that is usually derived from petroleum. Tyre manufacturer Goodyear is working with USA-baed biotechnology firm Genencor to engineer bacteria to produce molecules they wouldn’t normally synthesise, enabling them to develop tyres based on natural materials. The traditional process used to require seven gallons of petroleum to manufacture each tyre, whereas bio-isoprene reduces this to close to zero.
Several companies are currently racing to develop bio-acrylic acid, the main monomer used to make superabsorbent polymers, which can be used in products such as babies’ nappies. And of course a number of companies are developing liquid biofuels – ethanol and butanol – to replace fossil fuels.

Where are the opportunities?
The global chemicals market is predicted to be US$4,916bln by 2015 (Chemicals: Global Industry Almanac 2011). And virtually all chemicals are currently produced from oil. While IB’s contribution to this is growing fast, it is still a small part of the total chemicals market. If IB can replace just a small percentage of oil-based chemicals and materials, the financial, competitive and marketing opportunities are huge.

There is still a way to go, though. Relatively few manufacturing businesses are harnessing IB, despite its opportunities. Industries often like to stick with what they know – even if what they are used to is increasing in price. A better understanding of how to implement IB into existing processes and how to use it to develop new opportunities is desperately needed if it is to reach its potential.

There are also some legitimate concerns to be overcome as IB becomes more in demand. Growing plants as raw materials for chemicals requires land and water, which might be viewed as taking land that could be used for other opportunities such as food. If the sector is to ensure the sustainability of IB, and therefore win the public’s trust, it must avoid adverse impacts on food security and place no additional burdens on scarce water supplies.
There is plenty going on to make sure we get this right. Much research is going into ways to sustainably develop IB processes, such as the use of waste lignocellulosic, for example straw or corn stover. Promising projects are also looking into growth strategies for plants such as miscanthus and willow, which don’t require much in the way of fertilisers and can be grown on land that is unsuitable for food production.

As with any new technology, there is also a mindset change to be overcome. Industry and the general public are used to materials being dug out of the ground. But using plants to develop materials is becoming an ever more cost-effective and sustainable option. Awareness and uptake of this method might have been slow to develop, but the approach is starting to catch on. Growing interest is accompanied by greater investment, both public and private, and academic research is constantly advancing this area.

Small, innovative businesses are finding ways to harness IB techniques to do exciting things and a number of major businesses are also making use of the technology. While there are still hurdles, it feels as though we are now on the right path.
IB is not a panacea, but it does offer opportunities throughout the materials cycle, from reducing extraction demands of diminishing raw materials and developing new products to making production cheaper, and ensuring products are more recyclable. This is a win for everyone.

The Industrial Biotechnology Leadership Forum is shaping the strategy for IB in the UK, and is delivered through the Industrial Biotechnology Special Interest Group. It is run by the Biosciences KTN and the Chemistry Innovation KTN. For more information, click here.