Biotechnology and industry: a union of promise

OECD Observer

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To many, biotechnology is all about genetically modified foods and cloning. Yet, it is also proving its value to the industrial production process, offering clear environmental and economic advantages over conventional methods.
In an industrial context, ‘clean’ is a relative term. Any change that reduces consumption of raw materials and energy or reduces waste, including recycling, is ‘cleaner’ or more environment-ally friendly. There are ways of evaluating technologies and their alternatives in terms of their relative cleanliness throughout the production process and the life of the product. More generally, with industrial biotechnology the focus has shifted from remediation to prevention of environmental degradation.A cleaner alternativeBiotechnology-based manufacturing can in fact be significantly ‘cleaner’ than the alternatives. The chemistry of living organisms is rather more efficient than that of chemical processes, and the wastes generated tend to be recyclable and biodegradable. In the galvanising industry, for example, replacing an alkaline process by a biotechnological process reduces the amount of hydroxide sludge created as waste by half and requires only one-tenth of the water. In the fine chemicals industry, the production of cephalosporin, an antibiotic, through a biotechnological rather than a chemical process results in a considerable reduction in the cost of measures to protect the environment.Waste and resource consumption are being reduced using various biotechnological methods. And costs have been cut as well. Treating wood pulp with funghi (biopulping) rather than thermomechanically, for example, results in an overall energy savings of up to 30%, and using enzymes (biocatalysts) to break down wood cellulose can result in faster processing with considerable savings of -water and energy. While scientists are now searching for more reliable biocatalysts that will work at higher temperatures in the petrochemical industry, for example, such biocatalysts will still operate at temperatures below their conventional equivalents.Integrating biotechnology in industry Biotechnological processes have improved and can now compete with other technologies. They are being widely used in the chemicals industry (especially for fine chemicals and pharmaceuticals), pulp and paper production, textiles and leather, food processing (including animal feed), metals and minerals, and energy sect-ors. In developed countries, these sectors account for between 30% and 50% of all manufacturing. Biotechnological processes have helped them to improve their rather poor environment-al image and, in many cases, increase their efficiency.One exciting prospect is the possibility that bioethanol, a liquid transport-ation fuel produced from agricultural waste, may one day meet a large share of global demand for petrol. Unlike conventional fuels, bioethanol is not a net contributor to greenhouse gases. It is not yet cost-competitive, but that should change. At the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory, it is hoped to produce ethanol from biomass by 2000 at a cost that will be competitive with petrol.Biotechnology has numerous applications. At one end of the spectrum, it helps improve large-scale fermentation based on living organisms, such as ethanol. At the other end, minute parts of biological molecules are used as sensors in analytical devices, for example to detect viruses. Moreover, its power as a tool for industry is increasing ra-pidly. Novel enzymes, or biocatalysts, recombinant organisms and extremophiles – organisms that live under extreme conditions of pressure or temperature, in deep-sea vents or geysers – have the potential to make industry cleaner and more efficient.In addition to its contributions to industrial processes, biotechnology has also led to the creation of a wide range of materials, such as biodegradable plastics, biopolymers and bio-pesticides, novel fibres and even timbers. Some are used as fabric softeners, corrosion inhibitors, ink carriers, solvents, hair conditioners and perfumes. The waste from these manufactured products can decompose more naturally.With all these benefits it may seem remarkable that industrial biotechnology is not more widely used. Industrialists have long been concerned that biotechnological processes might be less effective, the costs and risks too high, the scale of operations too restricted. These concerns are no longer valid. But bottlenecks and challenges remain nonetheless.First, there are still scientific and technological hurdles. Novel processes require capital expenditure and development costs can be high. But on the other hand, biotechnological processes can be easily incorporated into existing plants and equipment, without the need for radical redesign or overhaul. And many of the technical problems are being overcome through new designs for bioreactors. Research continues into recombinant DNA technology, bioprocess engineering, the development of new bioreactors and the search for novel organisms living in extreme conditions. There is a huge and as yet untapped wealth of unknown micro--organisms that may be a source of valuable biocatalysts. Proteins and enzymes with novel functions and properties can be obtained by improving known natural ones, for ex-ample through directed evolution, in which enzymes are engineered for use in specific applications.A second reason why biotechnology has not permeated industry more quickly is simply that the training of engineers and industrial designers does not tend to cover the relevant biological processes. The nature of the materials, the vessels and the operating conditions of biotechnologies are so different that engineers and plant operators have to be retrained, and the instinct has been to stick with fami-liar processes.A co-ordinated effortPublic opinion is a potent force on environmental issues and managing it presents a key challenge. Lead-free petrol and recycling have been widely introduced, in the main spurred by public pressure. Lifestyles have changed and the demand for cleaner products has risen. Policy decision-making has followed and so has business behaviour. It is now quite -common for companies to see en-viron--mental public relations as a key part of their business strategy, whether by advertising on television or inviting consumer groups to participate in shaping decisions.But public trust cannot be secured by information campaigns alone. Explaining biotechnology, in particular its regulatory aspects, is also import-ant to avoid confusion and calm unfounded fears. Education is therefore essential. The public might not want to know the technical details, in which case the aim should be to bolster public confidence in the use of industrial biotechnology to show that it is a rigorously controlled field, backed up by accountable public agencies. That means transparency and openness to debate.Governments too have to encourage the use of industrial biotechno-logies. Legislation, the quality of regulation, clarity of government guidelines, standards, procurement policy and government-supported R&D – all these can encourage or discourage, accelerate or delay progress.Governments cannot work in isolation. And they too must keep up with the speed of innovation. That is why joint action with industry is so import-ant, to improve R&D, for example. Scien-tists also have to commu-ni-cate with government, industry and the public to explain the significance of their projects.The international dimension to policies for clean technology draws its strength from international agreements and conventions. The 1992 Rio conference on the environment and its Agenda 21 were milestones, because governments acknowledged that a balance must be struck between globa-l-isation and sustainable development.Cleaner industry may be a relative notion, but one thing is clear: the urgent task of emissions reduction does not have to mean econo-mic loss. Indeed, with biotechno-logy the environment and the economy can actually reinforce each other. Getting that message across is vital. It would not only improve industrial sustainability, it would help to ensure that the link between industry and pollution is broken once and for all.©OECD Observer No 216, March 1999

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