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The pervasive impact of Biotech – IV

2019 Investment in Biotech showing the source of funding (Country) and the target. As shown Industrial Biotech is the second largest with 1B€ investment (one fourth of the investment in the medical sector but still a very sizeable one). Image credit: Labiotech

Biotech has become an important tool in several industrial areas:

  • advanced materials
  • energy
  • advanced manufacturing
  • healthcare

In addition it is a contributor to the circular economy and to sustainable development.

Biomaterials competitive landscape: key examples of successful chemical manufacturing through biological routes. For biomaterials, a robust and highly competitive industrial ecosystem already is beginning to emerge. Image credit: Industrialization of Biology: A Roadmap to Accelerate the Advanced Manufacturing of Chemicals – The National Academies Press.

Synthetic chemistry has made enormous progress and this has resulted in the amazing variety of materials that we have today. At the same time we realise that Nature in its billion years of evolution has discovered ways to produce materials with very interesting properties that so far have been difficult to re-create through synthetic chemistry. Think about, just to give an example, to a spider web.

Spider web are made from liquid proteins that solidify as they get in contact with air. The resulting fibre is 1,000 times thinner than a human hair and it is 5 times stronger than steel, it compares to Kevlar in strength and it has a better fracture toughness.  Spider web is not alone in the slate of advanced materials created by Nature. Hence the interest of industry to use biotech to replicate, at an industrial volume, some of these materials.

In the energy field biotech, as already mentioned in a previous post, biotechnology is used to improve the bio-mass growth that will be used to generate power as well as in the improvement of the conversion process (for those bio-masses that can directly produce power, like gas emission). There are several studies, and industrial exploitation, of algae as bio-mass to produce methane, bio-diesel and hydrogen. The challenge is to keep production cost low to be competitive with fossil fuels.

The production of hydrogen would be quite interesting, considering the expected use of hydrogen in transportation (trains and heavy trucks mainly) and the fact that the production of hydrogen via electrolysis is quite expensive in energy terms and can be a viable approach only when the required electricity can be obtained through renewable sources. There are also ongoing experiments (at research level) to use algae directly in fuel cells (the produced hydrogen is immediately used by the fuel cell).

As shown in the previous graphic there are quite a number of industrial biomaterials and these require ever more sophisticated manufacturing processes. The whole area of medicine (see first graphic) is clearly a heavy user of biotech and this in turns requires advanced manufacturing that by far are based on biotechnology. Scaling of these industrial processes, as it is the case in the production of vaccine for the ongoing pandemic, is a major challenge.

1) the use of renewable feedstocks; 2) developing novel chemicals and materials; 3) designing for better lifecycle outcomes; 4) the potential for compostability; and 5) using biology to upcycle waste and return carbon to material flows at end-of-life. Image credit: Christophe Shilling, Steve Weiss – A Roadmap for Industry to Harness Biotechnology for a More Circular Economy – Elsevier

Biotech can become an important component in a circular economy, as shown in the graphic.
This should not be surprising since “bio” is part of nature and results in natural by-products (that does not mean necessarily that all bio-products return to their original component, take as an example the calcium dissolved in the seas that is fixed into calcium carbonate -shells- and over millennia give rise to the formation of islands and beaches…).

As shown in the graphic biotech is instrumental in renewable feedstock and in the creation of bio-degradable materials. This eases the recycling at the product end of life and reuse of elemental components in a new production cycle.

This, obviously, makes for a sustainable economy from the point of view of natural resources, since these are “recycled” at the end of the life cycle.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.

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