In news that was music to every Scottish biotech company’s ears, earlier this month the Scottish Government set a legally binding target to end our country’s contribution to global warming by 2045, by achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.
This is exactly what our government needs to do to boost the country’s bio-economy. Without targets like this, it’s difficult to incentivise companies to stop doing what is the cheapest and fastest thing – relying as they have always done on fossil fuels, and products which are derived from crude oil. However, this new target will surely mean companies which contribute to reducing our carbon footprint will be rewarded appropriately – a shot in the arm for the biotech sector.
Reducing carbon emissions is at the very heart of what industrial biotechnology – or IB – is about. Everything we do at the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC), whether it’s a company-led research programme or a PhD project, is based on the need for a sustainable future.
Any time we can make a chemical, feedstock or fuel using IB, we are leaving fossil fuels in the ground and potentially locking up atmospheric carbon dioxide in the process. IB uses plant-based sources, and if you’re using plants as your main feedstock, you are capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Here’s a great example. We are carrying out a study looking at the economics and sustainability of reintroducing sugar beet crops to Fife. The sugar from these crops can be used for both food and other products – for example it could be converted to bioethanol for use in transport fuels. Currently, Scotland must import every litre of bioethanol it uses. However, if we could grow sugar beet successfully in Fife, with Grangemouth close by, the whole production cycle for this greener fuel could be carried out within a 50-mile radius. This could give Scotland a very large-scale opportunity.
Polyethylene is the most common chemical we make across the world, accounting for around a third of the total plastics market. 100 million tonnes are made every year and demand is still rising! Ethylene, the feedstock used to produce polyethylene, is currently produced in Grangemouth using fossil fuels. A company named Croda produces ethylene in the US which is 100% renewable and 100% plant-based using corn sugar. We’re not doing the same in Scotland yet – but it’s an opportunity that could materialise with the right supply chains from sugar beet.
Then there are a host of smaller opportunities within regular chemical manufacturing. Algae, for example, is useful as a food for salmon. In fact, the omega 3 oils that are considered so healthy in salmon actually come from the algae, not the fish. One of our member companies, MiAlgae, uses the co-products from Scotland’s whisky industry to grow omega-3 rich algae that can be fed to salmon. Not only is this a healthier way to feed the fish, it also has the potential to make the whisky industry carbon negative.
Another member company, Ingenza, are partnering with major leading chemical companies to genetically engineer organisms that can convert plant-derived sugar into molecules which can be made into high quality materials, capturing carbon as they do so. There are lots of exciting discoveries like this going on within the Scottish IB sector.
Scotland’s other big opportunity is in renewable energy – we are better positioned than any other European country in terms of wind power. Carbon dioxide is the lowest energy form of carbon, which means that if you want to do anything useful with it, you must put some energy back in. If you can use renewable energy, like wind, solar or wave power, to convert carbon dioxide into something useful, that’s ideal.
IBioIC member company, Drochaid Research Services, is converting carbon dioxide and hydrogen into liquid fuels. This has massive potential; in fact, some experts believe it could be the world’s biggest industry in a few decades. It may not be a direct example of biotech, but it all links up. For example, that same cheap and renewable energy source can power the lights which are used to grow the algae that feeds the fish, or to generate green hydrogen. Everyone, and especially the environment, benefits from investment in renewable power.
Our mission at IBioIC is to transition traditional fossil-fuel-based industries towards more sustainable sources. If you had a race between a chemist and a biotechnologist to come up with a way to make a new chemical product, the chemist will usually win, because the status quo is faster, cheaper and built on 150 years of knowledge. However, the biotechnologist will get you something sustainable and potentially with improved performance. And thanks to the vision of the Scottish Government, sustainability will soon be as big a driver as time and money.
Ian Archer is technical director at the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre