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New Energy World magazine logo
New Energy World magazine logo
ISSN 2753-7757 (Online)

Industrial biotechnology could break the UK’s addiction to fossil fuels

5/6/2024

6 min read

Photo of Professor Aline Miller, facing the camera, sitting alongisde a laboratory bench with microscopes, flasks, vials and other lab equipment Photo: University of Manchester
Aline Miller, Professor of Biomolecular Engineering and Associate Dean of Business Engagement at the University of Manchester

Photo: University of Manchester

A powerful combination of bioscience and business could reduce our reliance on unsustainable petrochemicals, argues Aline Miller, Professor of Biomolecular Engineering and Associate Dean of Business Engagement at the University of Manchester.

Our world lives and breathes fossil fuels. Whether it’s the cars we drive, the houses we heat, or the heavy machinery we operate to mine, build and manufacture, it’s a fact that we’re all aware of. We’re used to imagining a society that is always growing, unlimited in its ability to produce – but it’s a vision that doesn’t quite line up with the destructiveness and limited supply of what is powering it.

 

In the UK, moves to ramp up oil and gas drilling in the North Sea signal political willingness to sacrifice the long-term health of the planet to satisfy our short-term needs. But this reliance goes deeper than most people realise. It’s not just energy. Petrochemicals, refined from petroleum and other fossil hydrocarbons, are themselves key ingredients in many of our everyday products.

 

These toxic substances are used to manufacture household cleaners, health products and plastics of all kinds. They don’t decompose naturally and linger in the environment long after they are flushed down drains or thrown away. All of this, while still requiring huge amounts of energy to process into usable forms and extract from vulnerable natural habitats.

 

So, what’s the alternative? The answer may be in nature. On its own, nature operates at close to 100% efficiency, creating and breaking down materials with endless circularity. What if we could use these biological processes for industrial purposes, to make new and more sustainable products? And in today’s fossil fuel-addicted world, how could we achieve that?

 

Industrial biotechnology
Industrial biotechnology is a scientific field that aims to use biological resources and processes for everyday product development, often using anthropogenic waste, and without relying on conventional petrochemical-based feedstocks. This waste could be biomass such as leftover crops and food, and more stubborn landfill waste such as municipal solids and construction and demolition waste.

 

This process is driven by enzymes, like the ones that break down food in our digestive systems. But enzymes don’t just do whatever we tell them to. They fulfil specialised purposes depending on the chemical they are built to break down. We can’t force them to do another job; what we can do, however, is find the enzyme that will.

 

We call this ‘directed evolution’. Using an automated synthesis platform, we can quickly and simultaneously comb through multiple microbiological ‘ball pits’ of enzymes to find the perfect enzyme for the task at hand – the one green ball amidst the red. We then take that enzyme and multiply it into a usable quantity.

 

Armed with these specialised enzymes, we can put them to use in specific applications across various industries. Here, they perform just as well as their non-biological counterparts while producing fewer emissions, consuming less energy and minimising harm to life of all kinds.

 

Industrial biotechnology aims to use biological resources and processes for everyday product development, often using anthropogenic waste, without relying on conventional petrochemical-based feedstocks.

 

Industry applications and impacts
Energy – Natural waste products can be used as feedstocks to make new, highly scalable biofuels. Directed evolution could be used to arrange biomass into specific structures, or supplement anaerobic digestion to accelerate the release of biogas of select compositions and concentrations. For example, bioethanol can be produced at scale through the fermentation of sugar.

 

Manufacturing – For chemicals and materials, enzymes could help us to manufacture biodegradable protein-based packaging, develop new sustainable and corrosion-resistant plastics, and find ways to consume and transform harmful waste from heavy industries.

 

Medicine – In the medical field, we could increase the production of active molecules, create new cell therapies and increase the rate of successful biotherapeutic delivery.

 

Roadblocks and opportunities
As the technology is in its early stages, scalability remains a focus, both for the logistics of mass production and the availability of the feedstocks themselves. Much of this concern comes from a place of policy, standards and regulation. To ease the cost of investment as profitability levels out, any future government should look to introduce levies for companies that are doing biotech and doing it right.

 

That said, the UK government’s recent focus on biotechnology and new £5mn sandbox fund does show that there is an increasing state interest in the sector, which was valued at £22bn in 2023.

 

Consumer adoption is also key. Even if we achieve price parity, suspicion of biotechnological ‘meddling’, such as with GM (genetically modified) crops, persists. However, consumer confidence will be bolstered by changes in regulation, and increased understanding in schools and the media. This will only get better as the body of evidence showing the benefits and safety of the products grows.

 

Catalysing progress
To translate this cutting-edge research into real products and solutions, and then fast-track them into industrial applications, we need to give businesses and start-ups a platform to collaborate with higher education and government. With those fields of expertise combined, we can find ways to make the science pay off.

 

At the University of Manchester, we’ve launched the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Catalyst to boost job creation, innovation, collaboration and investment in upskilling in the north-west of England. We’re matchmaking leading academics with local businesses, while engaging policymakers throughout the process. The outcome will be a collective increase in both funding opportunities and positive awareness of biotechnology’s potential.

 

Looking ahead
The possibilities of industrial biotechnology are just beginning. We are expanding our toolbox with nature, and with the help of directed evolution we are expanding nature’s toolbox too. If we want to wean ourselves off fossil fuels and make things that people use every day in a greener, cleaner way, we need to learn to not be frightened by ‘bio’. We’re not playing God; it’s just a different way to look at the problem.

 

As we zoom out to look at the big picture challenges – an ageing population, uneven food supplies and climate change – we should also zoom into the very small world of biology for inspiration.

 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are strictly those of the author only and are not necessarily given or endorsed by or on behalf of the Energy Institute.

 

  • Further reading: ‘Using laundry detergent enzymes to recycle single-use plastics’. UK scientists have developed an innovative solution for recycling single-use bioplastics commonly used in disposable items such as coffee cups and food containers, which they claim puts the circular economy for plastics within reach.
  • See also ‘Finding the formula for chemical sector recarbonisation’. Reducing emissions of greenhouse gases is essential for chemical companies to remain competitive. Investing in feedstock sources and conversion technologies can help close the gap to net zero, according to a team at McKinsey’s Chemicals Practice.