Industrial biotechnology (IB) is the term for the application of nature’s catalysts – enzymes – and biological systems to produce chemicals, materials and energy. The concept is not new: traditional food like bread, cheese and yoghurt are all made using microorganisms. Using the latest developments in biotechnology we are now able to take this approach a step further and engineer nature to produce the medicines, plastics and fuels that underpin society. Through successive investments in the UK’s research base we have world-class academic capabilities, creating new approaches that promise to transform bio-production. However, these developments are yet to transition through to large-scale mainstream use.
Let us consider the production of chemicals. The chemical industry is vitally important to the UK economy, with 3,608 businesses employing 153,000 people, giving £19.2bn gross value added on a turnover of £55.5bn. However, the vast majority of this production is from non-renewable petrochemicals. This is at odds with the UK’s Paris Agreement obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. We need to change.
The OECD has previously highlighted IB as a key enabler to save energy and reduce CO2 emissions. Successive UK governments have also understood the importance of IB; the vision outlined in the 2016 paper Building a High Value Bioeconomy outlined the UK’s potential to become the “location of choice for global investment in the bioeconomy”, to become a “major exporter of process technologies and business models”.
Global society needs new technologies to manufacture chemicals essential to modern life in ways that are decoupled from fossil fuels. New alternative biomanufacturing routes promise the opportunity to convert sustainable carbon containing feedstocks, such as food waste and even CO2, into everyday essentials. The UK has the potential to be at the vanguard here: it is recognised as a globally leading nation in a number of important areas of innovation that underpin the bioeconomy, with an excellent policy environment and a high calibre of scientists and intellectual property protection, but often falls down on the required R&D spending.
As a measure to partly address this capability gap, the UK Research and Innovation-funded Future Biomanufacturing Research Hub (FutureBRH.com) was established in 2019. Based at the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology (The University of Manchester) with spokes at Imperial College London, UCL, Nottingham, the UK Catalysis Hub, IBioIC (Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre) and CPI (Centre for Process Innovation), the Future BRH is pioneering new bioproduction technologies. The purpose is to research sustainable biomanufacturing in four key sectors: pharmaceuticals, chemicals, fuels and materials. Positioned at low technology research levels (TRLs 1-3), the aim is to support novel biomanufacturing processes via industrial and academic collaboration. To this end, the Future BRH has established partnerships with major UK and international companies in the petrochemical, personal care and pharmaceutical sectors, along with a number of SMEs with innovative technologies. Together, FutureBRH and its partners are researching new biosynthetic routes to medicines, polymers and transport fuels based on sustainable, low-carbon materials.
This focus on biomanufacturing research follows previous strategic investments made by the UK Government in discovery bioscience, in the form of synthetic biology research centres (SBRCs) that have provided new capabilities for the engineering of biology. These centres, at the universities of Bristol, Edinburgh, Imperial College and Manchester, have been at the forefront of creating “biofoundries” equipped with state-of-the-art robotics and analytical equipment to allow the rapid engineering of benign yeast and bacteria. These centres are connected to the Global Biofoundries Alliance to ensure best scientific and ethical practises are shared internationally.
The UK has a firm research base from which to grow a vibrant biomanufacturing economy. The opportunity now facing the government and the manufacturing sector is to implement these frontier technologies at scale for next-generation chemicals biomanufacturing.
The Covid-19 pandemic has put a renewed focus on the UK’s supply chains and manufacturing resilience. A shift to bio-based production would reduce our dependence on fossil resources and could transform incumbent processes based upon petrochemicals. Currently, the UK’s chemical production is in four main clusters: Hull, Teeside, Runcorn and Grangemouth. Efforts to stimulate biomanufacturing in these areas would be aligned with the “levelling up” strategy, creating high-growth markets. For instance, the market for bio-surfactants is growing at 5.1 per cent compound annual growth rate (CAGR), with demand for bio-plastics pushing growth by 28 per cent CAGR. By 2025, the global IB market has been estimated to be worth up to £360bn.
There is a risk to the UK economy of not supporting biomanufacturing. The pharmaceutical, chemicals and materials manufacturing sectors are highly competitive and global in scale. Failure to support the move towards sustainable biomanufacturing may have a detrimental effect on the existing chemical sector as other countries leapfrog the UK. There is increasing competition from emerging markets, and other developed nations are investing heavily. In Denmark, the Novo Nordisk Foundation has just awarded a grant of £100m to the DTU Biosustain research centre for the sustainable production of biochemicals and green consumer products.
However, the UK cannot do everything and we should be strategic. We do not have the sustainable feedstock capacity to be a significant manufacturer of bulk, low-value bio-based chemicals. Instead, the UK could develop the innovation expertise to export processes and technologies to manufacturing organisations overseas. The UK could focus on manufacturing value-added products, and pursue other opportunities though international partnerships. Further investment to pull through emerging capabilities in chemicals production from novel engineering biology platforms into mainstream manufacturing will push the UK to the front of global markets.
Biomanufacturing requires cross-disciplinary skills, bringing together chemistry, computation, process engineering, microbiology and synthetic biology, in conjunction with research and innovation. But the transition to a sustainable bio-based future cannot occur in isolation in universities, it requires true collaboration with industries across multiple sectors. The step-out nature of this research and development will require co-investment from governments and international bodies to de-risk the science for companies, especially for SMEs. We understand the challenges here: our own spin-out company, C3 BIOTECH, is developing “fuel from waste” technologies that will benefit from economies of scale. With the right investment, biomanufacturing could support the UK’s clean growth agenda to decouple pollution from economic development, and allow us to transition to a sustainable manufacturing era post-Covid.