Often referred to as biotechnology’s “third wave,” industrial biotechnology holds a wealth of promise for resource conservation, pollution prevention, and cost reduction. Also known as “white biotechnology,” industrial biotechnology brings nature to bear on industrial processes, using enzymes and microorganisms as natural helpers to transform the way we manufacture products, and to make the creation of groundbreaking new products possible. Read on for a look at five of the most important innovations happening today in industrial biotechnology.
Carbon emissions mitigation
Scientists and world leaders agree that if we want to reduce the impact that climate change will have on our planet, we must find an effective way to mitigate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In response to this problem, a number of pioneering companies are working on new technologies that are able to use GHGs as an industrial process feedstock. Going beyond carbon capture and storage to carbon capture and utilization, these technologies convert carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and methane into useful products, thus helping us dramatically reduce our carbon footprint and providing a sustainable solution to resource scarcity.
For example, the Dutch company Photanol has developed bio-based technology that converts carbon dioxide directly into biofuels, bioplastic building blocks, and other valuable organic chemicals, all thanks to the power of the sun. The company’s technology is based on cyanobacteria specially engineered with fermentation properties that, when exposed to sunlight, efficiently transform carbon dioxide molecules into predetermined products. And the best part about this process? The only byproduct is oxygen.
As the world’s population grows, the question of what to do with all our waste—especially industrial waste—is becoming a pressing issue. Industrial biotech innovators are addressing that issue by taking the approach that one person’s waste is another person’s treasure, and developing unique technologies that leverage the opportunities inherent in “waste” and “byproducts” to create valuable new products and applications.
A recent project based in Germany, for example, has successfully turned limonene, a chemical in citrus fruit rinds that is generated as a byproduct of fruit processing, into perillic acid. Thanks to its anti-microbial features, perillic acid is highly sought-after as a preservative in the natural cosmetics industry, where it is used as a replacement for fossil fuel-based preservatives. Perillic acid also has potential applications for paint, coatings, and within the aromatics industry. In a similar vein, Japanese researchers demonstrated in 2014 that waste from oranges can be converted into biobutanol, a valuable biofuel that can be blended with regular gasoline.
The mining industry is notoriously energy-intensive and can cause significant environmental damage. Luckily, industrial biotechnology has a huge range of potential applications in mining, from metal leaching and recovery to impurity removal and product upgrading, which could help to greatly reduce mining’s ecological footprint.
Bioleaching is one of the clearest examples of how industrial biotechnology can not only help make mining greener, but also add value. In the process of bioleaching, metals are dissolved with bacteria instead of the chemical solutions that are typically used; the process employs bacteria that can essentially “eat” the metal content found in ore and allow it to be flushed out in a solution. This technique both reduces the need for harmful chemicals and because of its thoroughness, makes it possible to extract metal even from low-grade ores that the mining industry traditionally disregards.
Thanks to their unique metabolisms, bacteria and enzymes have great potential as useful tools in the clean-up of contaminated waters and ground sites. The process of using microorganisms to remove pollutants is known as bioremediation, and it is a technique that has attracted a great deal of attention in recent years.
The period from 2004 to 2007 saw the successful demonstration of a European Union-funded project called Biomercury, which leveraged mercury-resistant bacteria containing transformed enzymes to purify groundwater, wastewater, soil, air, and saltwater, as well as to help in cleaning up gold and mercury mines.
Another similar project, also funded by the EU, concentrated on the bioremediation of drinking water resources contaminated by micropollutants like pesticides or pharmaceuticals. This is a serious issue in the developing world in particular. The Biotreat project developed the idea of strategically placing degrading microorganisms around wells and intake sites for drinking water. These microorganisms boost existing filtration methods and help remove even low concentrations of micropollutants from contaminated water sources.
Alternative fuel sources
While some industrial biotech innovators are working to transform waste, byproducts, or emissions into fuel, others are using similar techniques to create new fuel sources from scratch. Microalgae are one such fuel source that currently holds promise for the generation of renewable oils. Solazyme, a US-based company, is working on the production of these unicellular organisms, which can grow on any biomass, from waste streams to corn and corn stover. Algal oils have a wide range of potential uses, including as insulating fluid for electrical equipment like transformers.