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Industrial biotechnology

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Title: Industrial biotechnology  
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Subject: Biochemical engineering, Bioreactor, Directed evolution, Index of biotechnology articles, Index of environmental articles
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Industrial biotechnology

Industrial biotechnology (known mainly in Europe as white biotechnology) is the application of biotechnology for industrial purposes, including manufacturing, alternative energy (or "bioenergy"), and biomaterials. It includes the practice of using cells or components of cells like enzymes to generate industrially useful products. The Economist speculated (as cited in the Economist article listed in the "References" section) industrial biotechnology might significantly impact the chemical industry. The Economist also suggested it can enable economies to become less dependent on fossil fuels.

The industrial biotechnology community generally accepts an informal divide between industrial and pharmaceutical biotechnology. An example would be that of companies growing fungus to produce antibiotics, e.g. penicillin from the penicillium fungi. One view holds that this is industrial production; the other viewpoint is that it would not strictly lie within the domain of pure industrial production, given its inclusion within medical biotechnology.

This may be better understood by calling to mind the classification by the U.S. biotechnology lobby group, Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) of three "waves" of biotechnology. The first wave, Green Biotechnology, refers to agricultural biotechnology. The second wave, Red Biotechnology, refers to pharmaceutical and medical biotechnology. The third wave, White Biotechnology, refers to industrial biotechnology. In actuality, each of the waves may overlap each of the others. Industrial biotechnology, particularly the development of large-scale bioenergy refineries, will likely involve dedicated genetically modified crops as well as the large-scale bioprocessing and fermentation as is used in some pharmaceutical production.

Industrial biotechnology and climate change

The relationship between industrial biotechnology and climate change cuts across three major spheres of climate change science and policy: impacts, mitigation, and adaptation. The impacts of a changing climate on agriculture and land use will affect the availability of biomass and food production. Populations of developing countries will suffer disproportionately, especially since some of the regions that may be most negatively affected are part of small island states and in already impoverished areas of sub-Saharan Africa.With respect to mitigation, the expansion of industrial biotechnology can offer new opportunities for fossil fuel substitution and carbon sequestration. If genetic modification is employed, the linkages to both mitigation and adaptation would be even more direct. A given crop might be adjusted so as to yield better characteristics for energy production (e.g. more fibre, faster growth, less lignin). With respect to adaptation, varieties might be developed that require less water or are otherwise more suited to the new climate. Biomass and industrial biotechnology can address greenhouse gas emissions while at the same time providing a more sustainable foundation for the developing world’s transition from an agrarian to an industrial economy.

Novel implementation platforms and identification of existing technologies that are under-utilised or inefficiently utilised will generally be preferred to developing new technologies, particularly in smaller and/or poorer developing countries.

The following options could be considered:

  • Improving the efficiency of biomass to energy conversion (e.g. advanced cogeneration, biomass gasification)
  • Creating biomass resource options from agricultural or process wastes
  • Use of agricultural or process wastes as inputs to industrial processes
  • Substitution for products made from fossil sources (e.g. fertilisers, bio-plastics)

The above options tend to have medium-to-large economies-of-scale. Alternatively, in the context of poverty reduction in rural areas, there may be a preference for options aimed at expanding energy services (e.g. biogas for cooking) and/or creating income-generating opportunities (e.g. small-scale agro-industrial plants). At the same time, smaller-scale options with many end-users require more effort for replication and dissemination, and thus entail higher transaction costs. Detailed analysis of impacts, adaptation, and enhanced sequestration are quite complicated and beyond the scope of this report. Mitigation options through the Kyoto mechanisms (Emissions Trading, Joint Implementation, and CDM) are of greatest near-term interest, not only because of the opportunities to obtain financial support, but also because expanded platforms for industrial biotechnology can address long-term sustainable development goals at the same time that they offer greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions. Since only Annex 1 parties have Kyoto obligations, Emissions Trading and JI are only indirectly related to developing country crediting via the linkages from GHG credits that are generated.

Industrial or white biotechnology uses enzymes and micro-organisms to make bio-based products in sectors such as chemicals, food and feed, detergents, paper and pulp, textiles and bioenergy (such as biofuels or biogas). In doing so, biotechnology uses renewable raw materials and is one of the most promising, innovative approaches towards lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

The application of industrial biotechnology has been proven to make quite significant contributions towards mitigating the impacts of climate change in these and other sectors. In addition to environmental benefits, biotechnology can improve industry performance and product value and, as the technology develops and matures, white biotechnology will yield more viable solutions for our environment. These innovative solutions bring added benefits for both our climate and our economy.

Industrial biotechnology is based on renewable resources, can save energy in production processes, and can significantly reduce CO2 emissions. The impact that biotechnology has on industry is confirmed by scientific studies and reports, such as the OECD’s report on the application of biotechnology to industrial sustainability and, most recently, by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) report on the potential of industrial biotechnology to cut CO2 emissions and help build a greener economy.

The WWF report concludes that the full climate change mitigation potential of biotechnology processes and bio-based products ranges from between one billion and 2.5 billion tons CO2 equivalent per year by 2030. This represents more than Germany’s total reported emissions in 1990. Many low-carbon technologies are already available, and future innovations offer greater potential. Forward-thinking companies have already discovered the potential of biotechnology to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

However, in order to fully realise the potential of biotechnology it will be critical that international policy makers create a fully supportive biotechnology legislative framework.


External links

  • Industrial biotechnology, A powerful, innovative technology to mitigate climate change
  • Industrial Biotechnology and Biomass Utilisation


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