Role of Biotechnology in producing sustainable clean industrial products – Important aspect for keeping our environment safer and greener – A discussion:
Definition of Biotechnology – Biotechnology is science and technology which is based on the use of cells or part of cells for the production of knowledge, products and services.
Modern biotechnology includes the use of gene technology and other methods in molecular biology to produce knowledge and useful products for application in research, medicine, agriculture and industry.
1. Biotechnology and Industrial Products:
A. Various points have been given below regarding role of biotechnology and industrial sustainability in producing clean industrial products:
a. Industrial sustainability demands a global vision and co-ordinated policy approaches.
b. In an industrial context, sustainability is equated with clean industrial products and processes.
c. Biotechnology is competitive with and in many cases complements chemical methods for achieving clean technologies.
d. It is essential to determine what is clean or cleaner, using Life Cycle Assessment and related methods.
e. Biotechnology is a versatile enabling technology that provides powerful routes to clean industrial products and processes and is expected to play a growing role.
B. Biotechnology and CO2 emissions: Fossil carbon represents the single most important raw material for energy generation and for chemicals manufacture, but its oxidation product, CO2, is an important greenhouse gas. Any means of reducing fossil carbon consumption, either by improving energy efficiency or by substituting alternative resources will directly result in lowered CO2 production and thus reduce global warming.
C. Industrial processes: Use of biotechnology has already resulted in energy reduction in industrial processes. In only a few instances can the reductions be quantified, and these are presented in this report. Others are only available as anecdotal evidence. As yet, there are insufficient data to allow scaling up these figures to cover whole industrial sectors.
Examples: a. Ammonium acrylate, a key intermediate in the manufacture of acrylic polymers, is made by hydrolyzing acrylonitrile to acrylic acid and reacting this with ammonia. The reaction is energy-intensive and gives rise to by-products which are difficult to remove. A process, based on a bacterial enzyme which directly synthesises ammonium acrylate of the same quality under less energy-demanding conditions, has been operating for several years at full scale.
b. In paper making, treating cellulose fibres in the pulp using cellulase and hemicellulase enzymes allows water to drain more quickly from the wet pulp, thereby reducing processing time and energy used for drying. Trials have shown that machine speeds can be increased by up to 7 per cent and energy input reduced by as much as 7.5 per cent. Replacing thermomechanical pulping by biopulping has resulted in up to 30 per cent reduction in electrical energy consumption.
D. Materials: Biomass, as it grows, consumes CO2. Substances made from such renewable raw materials are therefore a zero net contributor to atmospheric greenhouse gases, unless fossil fuel is used in their manufacture. A wide range of chemicals and structural materials can be based on biological raw materials including biodegradable plastics, biopolymers and biopesticides, novel fibres and timbers. Plant-derived amides, esters and acetates are currently being used as plasticisers, blocking/slip agents and mould-release agents for synthetic polymers. Uses of biohydrocarbons linked to amines, alcohols, phosphates and sulphur ligands include fabric softeners, corrosion inhibitors, ink carriers, solvents, hair conditioners, and perfumes.
E. Chemicals from biological feedstocks: It is no longer necessary to start with a barrel of oil to produce chemicals. Corn, beets, rice – even potatoes – make excellent feedstocks. The fact that micro-organisms transform sugars into alcohol has been known for a very long time. But only since the advent of genetic engineering is it feasible to think about harnessing the sophistication of biological systems to create molecules that are difficult to synthesise by traditional chemical methods.
For example, the polymer polytrimethylene terephthalate (3GT) has enhanced properties compared to traditional polyester (2GT). Yet commercialization has been slow to come because of the high cost of making trimethylene glycol (3G), one of 3GT’s monomers. The secret to producing 3G can be found in the cellular machinery of certain unrelated microorganisms. Some naturally occurring yeasts convert sugar to glycerol, while a few bacteria can change glycerol to 3G. The problem is that no single natural organism has been able to do both. Through recombinant DNA technology, an alliance of scientists from DuPont and Genencor International has created a single micro-organism with all the enzymes required to turn sugar into 3G. This breakthrough is opening the door to low-cost, environmentally sound, large-scale production of 3G. The eventual cost of 3G by this process is expected to approach that of ethylene glycol (2G). The 3G fermentation process requires no heavy metals, petroleum or toxic chemicals. In fact, the primary material comes from agriculture – glucose from cornstarch. Rather than releasing carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, the process actually captures it because corn absorbs CO2 as it grows. All liquid effluent is easily and harmlessly biodegradable. Moreover, 3GT can readily undergo methanolysis, a process that reduces polyesters to their original monomers. Post-consumer polyesters can thus be repolymerised and recycled indefinitely.
F. Clean fuels: While biomass can be consumed (incinerated) directly to produce energy, it can also be converted into a wide range of chemicals and liquid fuels. Although, in energy terms, annual land production of biomass is some five times global energy consumption, biomass presently provides only 1 per cent of commercial energy. Biomass energy cannot compete at present-day prices with fossil fuels and has so far penetrated the market only where governments have effectively subsidised its use. Bioethanol is a CO2-neutral alternative liquid transportation fuel. As new technologies – including continuous fermentation, production from lignocellulosic (wood and agricultural crop) waste – and more efficient separation techniques are developed, the cost of bioethanol will compete with that of gasoline. Over a 20-year period, US ethanol production, based solely on lignocellulosic waste, could rise to 470 million tonnes a year, equal to present gasoline consumption in energy terms.
2. R&D priorities in biotechnology are essential to take care of post-Kyoto challenges:
A. Global Warming: The third session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate change, held in Kyoto, Japan, on December 1997, agreed on a protocol which includes each party’s quantitative commitment to reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide (CO2) by 2010. The protocol specifies that the European Union will commit itself to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 8 per cent by 2010 from the level of 1990 (base year), the United States by 7 per cent, and Japan and Canada by 6 per cent. As an essential element in achieving this goal, industry must reduce energy consumption in order to maintain development while helping to meet these targets.
This would include a shift from present petrochemical industry processes, which consume large quantities of energy under conditions of high temperature and pressure, to more energy-efficient biological processes, which use renewable resources such as biomass to produce useful substances under normal temperatures and pressures. For example, future processes will focus more on producing efficiently alternative fuels such as ethanol, which contribute less to global warming and are also likely to produce environmentally benign products, such as biodegradable plastics, which breaks down in natural settings after use.
As a result, biotechnology should become an increasingly valuable tool for developing environmentally friendly products and processes and for preventing the Earth from warming.
B. R&D priorities in biotechnology for promotion of clean industrial products and processes: If biotechnology is to become an increasingly important source of clean industrial products and processes, R&D efforts will need to focus on a number of priority areas. Among those that deserve prompt and focused research in the near future are:
a. Innovative products derived from biological sources that contribute to sustainability;
b. Wider exploration of biological systems (enzymes, micro-organisms, cells, whole organisms);
c. Greater emphasis on the use of bioconsortia, including establishing them and developing production and degradation processes based on them;
d. Novel methodologies for developing biological processes (bio-molecular design, genomics);
e. Innovative biocatalyst technology for use in areas where conventional biocatalysts have not yet been exploited (e.g. the petrochemical industries);
f. Biological recycling processes that convert unused resources to useful substances;
g. Emphasis on engineering, especially large-scale engineering, process intensification, measurement, monitoring and control systems;
h. Greater emphasis on biodiversity and widening the search for novel genes (bioprospecting), a process that will require, in parallel, the construction of infrastructures such as culture collections, comprehensive biological databases, and the development of bioinformatics;
i. Focus on development and application of recombinant technology.
3. Biotechnology for development of sustainable clean technology – Strategies:
Many developed countries started using biotechnology as a means of achieving clean or cleaner industrial products and processes. It compares biotechnological processes with competing means of securing similar goals.
Meaning of Clean technology – All stages of the life cycle of a product or process may adversely affect the environment by using up limited resources of materials and energy or by creating waste. Any substitution or change that reduces consumption of materials and energy and production of waste – including, for example, recycling of materials and energy – may be regarded as more environmentally friendly or ‘‘clean’’. Clean technology may also be equated with reduced risk. Life Cycle Assessment is one way of comparing the relative cleanliness of a product or process.
Cleaner processes and products mean processes and products that consume less energy and material resources, generate less pollution or waste, or use renewable resources rather than petroleum or coal-based feedstock as feed. There are many reasons why an operator would switch to a cleaner process or product. Some of the more important factors most often mentioned are:
(a) Availability of raw materials;
(b) Cost factors;
(c) Market demands;
(d) Safety and health considerations;
(e) Environmental considerations;
(f) Product liability;
(g) Public image.
Thus, it is the duty of developed countries to appreciate the potential role of biotechnology in clean industrial processes and sets the stage for viewing clean processes in the context of industrial sustainability. The extents to which biotechnological thinking and practices are being introduced into industrial sectors, which have serious environmental impacts, are to be enhanced. The economic competitiveness of biotechnology for clean products and processes in these sectors are the major concerns, which Government / authorities required to be take a note and policy implementation should be in tune with sustainable development. Scientific and technological innovations across the range of biotechnologies and the opportunities for their adoption, as well as R&D priorities are to be spelt out.
The following few points are to be kept in mind while framing strategies for promotion of biotechnology for development of clean technology, in the context of industrial sustainability:
(a) Global environmental concerns will drive increased emphasis on clean industrial products and processes.
(b) Biotechnology is a powerful enabling technology for achieving clean industrial products and processes that can provide a basis for industrial sustainability.
(c) Measuring the cleanliness of an industrial product or process is essential but complex; Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is the best current tool for making this determination.
(d) The main drivers for industrial biotechnological processes are economic (market forces), government policy, and science and technology.
(e) Achieving greater penetration of biotechnology for clean environmental purposes will require joint R&D efforts by government and industry.
(f) For biotechnology to reach its full potential as a basis for clean industrial products and processes, beyond its current applications, additional R&D efforts will be needed.
(g) Because biotechnology, including recombinant DNA technology and its applications, has become increasingly important as a tool for creating value-added products and for developing biocatalysts, there is a strong need for harmonised and responsive regulations and guidelines.
(h) Market forces can provide very powerful incentives for achieving environmental cleanliness objectives.
(i) Government policies to enhance cleanliness of industrial products and processes can be the single most decisive factor in the development and industrial use of clean biotechnological processes.
(j) Communication and education will be necessary to gain penetration of biotechnology for clean products and processes into various industrial sectors.
[Refer ‘oil-spills-and-marine-biotechnology‘ for other aspect biotechnology]