Mark Corbett / A catalyst for cleaner growth

Autumn 2018

IssueWords by Mark Corbett

Illustration by Steve McCabe

In June 2018 the Industrial Biotechnology Leadership Forum launched A National Industrial Biotechnology Strategy to 2030. One of its co-authors, Dr Mark Corbett, Project Manager of CoEBio3 at the University, explains how this technology is central to UK plans for clean growth.

Nationally and internationally, governments have made commitments that growth should not come at the expense of the planet. Reduction in greenhouse emissions is essential if we are to prevent a man-made catastrophe, leading to extreme weather, food shortages, human conflict and mass extinctions. Nonetheless, human appetite for products and technology continues unabated.

Industrial biotechnology (IB) offers us a solution to this challenge. IB harnesses the power of biological systems to produce and process materials, chemicals and energy. It will be a key enabling technology in the shift from polluting, fossil-based manufacturing to new low-carbon economies.

The exquisite selectivity of biology, honed through billions of years of evolution, is now tailorable through biological sciences such as synthetic biology and industrial biotechnology. These enable new, low-carbon and low-energy processes.

 IB dates back to the rise of civilisation itself – look at the fermentation processes we use to produce alcohol. Today’s IB allows us to go further, using fermentable sugars for production of speciality chemicals, polymers, and biofuels, replacing those derived from petrochemicals. Not only that, but IB processes can create value where once there was waste – for example, from sustainable, low-value, natural starting materials, including by-products such as wheat straw or sawdust. Consider the 480kg of municipal solid waste utilised per person in the UK in 2016 – IB is beginning to use that as a feedstock, adding value to waste otherwise destined for incineration or landfill.

Importantly, the environmental benefits of IB go hand in glove with the potential for economic growth. IB has the immediate potential to disrupt established and stagnant markets worth at least $34 billion (£26 billion). It can transform UK prospects, with core national strengths in high-growth areas such as the manufacture of high-value chemicals and biological medicinal products. The UK is already establishing significant industrial capabilities, for example in biosurfactants and bioplastics.

The UK has a world-leading academic IB research base and many industry champions, but in common with many research areas has faced significant challenges to commercial realisation. Plans are afoot to resolve this. A National Industrial Biotechnology Strategy to 2030 sets out an industry-led plan, delivered in partnership with government and academia, to address key barriers in the translation of IB.

IB can grow the UK economy, driving the creation of jobs that command significant wage premiums while providing high- technology solutions to the challenges of implementing the UK government’s Clean Growth Strategy. As the value of global IB- enabled markets soars, it’s imperative that the UK remains at the forefront of this sector. It’s well placed to do so – but implementation of an integrated strategy is essential.

We must reduce unnecessary consumption through energy and resource efficiency, but production is intimately linked to human activity. The development of low-carbon sustainable technologies, IB key among them, is essential if we are to avert disaster while maintaining and improving our quality of life.

Mark Corbett is the Project Manager CoEBio3 in the Department of Chemistry at the University. 

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