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10 July 2020updated 16 Sep 2021 4:50pm

Industrial biotech is taking the UK towards net-zero carbon

Academia and industry are collaborating to support the UK’s green growth future.

By Stephen Webb

UK industry is directly responsible for a quarter of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. Industry uses fossil resources such as oil, coal and gas as the raw material to create a range of products, including plastics, bulk chemicals and fertilisers, as well as to provide heat and power for industrial processes such as steelmaking. A by-product of both production and combustion is carbon dioxide (CO2). This gas is almost entirely released to the atmosphere and is thereby a major UK contributor to climate change.

The challenge is to provide alternative sources of raw material and fuel that release no more CO2 into the atmosphere than they take in or, better still, that reduce CO2 levels. When biomass, such as trees from managed forests, is used as the raw material, it can be CO2 neutral, also known as carbon neutral, because no more CO2 is released than was taken in by the tree during its growth. If that released CO2 is itself used as the raw material for further manufacturing processes, and transformed into products such as textiles, paint or insulation, then the CO2 is locked away and the overall process is carbon negative.

Industrial biotechnology is the use of biological resources, including trees, other plants, algae and bacteria, to produce and process materials and chemicals of industrial and societal value. The ability to precisely manipulate the genetic make-up of living organisms has given fresh impetus to industrial biotechnology and is enabling a transformation of CO2-intensive industries.

There are many examples of industrial biotechnology in action. Bacteria can transform industrial waste gases into methane, replacing fossil natural gas as a fuel source and saving thousands of tonnes in CO2 emissions if implemented at full scale, as shown by the University of South Wales and NiTech (see figure). Perennial Miscanthus (elephant grass) is being grown by British farmers as a power station fuel in a carbon-negative process – some of the CO2 absorbed by Miscanthus as it grows is transferred into the soil and remains there after harvest – and Aberystwyth University and Terravesta are leading efforts to identify optimum Miscanthus varieties and growing protocols. Biodegradable plastics are being made from biomass by companies like Biome Bioplastics, in collaboration with several UK universities, without the need for fossil resources.

Engineers from the University of Nottingham have demonstrated that genetically-engineered bacteria can transform CO2 from steel plants into industrial chemicals including acetone and isopropanol, displacing petrochemical sources. Enzymes from bacteria have been engineered at the University of Portsmouth to rapidly decompose PET plastic – used for most drinks bottles – enabling new PET plastic products to be manufactured without further raw material input (currently from fossil resources) and, as a bonus, simultaneously avoiding plastic pollution.

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) – part of UK Research and Innovation – plays a vital role in developing the collaborative research ecosystem that is driving industrial biotechnology forwards. It is the principal public funder of UK research and innovation activities for future bio-based manufacturing. It collaborates with academia, industry and government to establish basic scientific knowledge, develop biotechnologies and advance their translation for the benefit of society and UK plc.

Ten years ago, the UK was not in a position to profit from advances in industrial biotechnology. To address this, BBSRC built and nurtured a series of UK-based networks that link academics, businesses and policymakers. This key initiative has resulted in exponential growth of the industrial biotechnology community and brought in many players that had not previously thought that industrial biotechnology had something to offer them. This community is now producing valuable outputs that contribute to reducing the carbon usage of UK industry.

BBSRC’s investments were critical to the progress of all the examples described above, but there is still a way to go. These novel processes have demonstrated what is possible, and in some cases they are already in limited commercial use. However, it is still necessary to conduct further research that will optimise and scale these processes to the level of industrial production, increasing their efficiency, reducing their economic costs and ensuring the decarbonisation of British industry.
Of course, decarbonisation is a global challenge and BBSRC’s networks involve members throughout the world.

Brazil, for example, has long been a leader in the production of bioethanol (from sugar cane) for motor fuel, but in collaboration with the University of Warwick, they are looking at producing chemicals from the residual sugar cane waste. Argentina and India are collaborating with the UK industrial biotechnology community to explore uses for their waste biomass. UK researchers are members of transnational consortia that have successfully obtained major EU research grants. These international links are testament to the regard in which UK industrial biotech expertise is now held by key players around the world.

Maintaining and expanding the current collaboration between universities, business and policymakers should enable progress in both identifying ways of decarbonising industry in the UK and being a global leader in using bioscience to reduce emissions across the world. Focusing on the translation of these new industrial biotechnologies to large-scale rollout will enable them to play a major part in cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Stephen Webb is senior portfolio manager at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. This report includes contributions from Colin Miles, Alex Amey, Jennifer Swarbrick, Chloe Heywood, Rod Westrop, Joanna Sparks and Elizabeth Saunders. 

For more information on the BBSRC’s research and activities see:

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