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Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag

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White Biotechnology

Present status and future perspectives of industrial biotechnology for a sustainable economy

Thematic area: Energy, resources, environment
Analytical approach: Innovation report
Topic initiative: Committee on Education, Research aand Technology Assessment
Status: completed
Duration: 2013 till 2016

Background and central aspects of the topic

Industrial Biotechnology, often also referred to as »white biotechnology« is the application of biotechnical processes in industrial production. Bulk chemicals, fine and speciality chemicals, materials and polymers, food, food additives, beverages, feed additives and precursors of pesticides and drugs are manufactured biotechnically. Industrial biotechnology is particularly relevant in chemical industry, but also in the food, feed and beverages sector, the pharmaceutical industry, pulp and paper production, textile and leather processing as well as in biorefineries.

TAB had catalysis, an important subfield of industrial biotechnology, on agenda in 1996 (TAB-Working Report No. 46 »Stand und Perspektiven der Katalysatoren- und Enzymtechnik«). Since then, industrial biotechnology has taken a very dynamic development:

  • Scientific-technical breakthroughs have made it possible to increase productivity and yield of biotechnical processes substantially and to firmly establish biotechnology in industrial production, especially for the conversion of natural raw materials and for the production of highly-priced specialities. It is expected that in the coming years, low-price commodities will be produced biotechnically as well.
  • Industrial activities have strongly increased both in Germany and internationally. In 1995, industrial bio- and enzyme technology were perceived as »exotic« and only had a certain role in production-integrated environmental protection. Meanwhile, for many chemical companies industrial biotechnology plays an important role for the future innovativeness and competitiveness of the company, and they have therefore put a strategic focus in biotechnology.
  • Industrial biotechnology is also a focus of research and innovation policy both on European and national level.
  • Biotechnical processes bear large potentials for improvements in resource and energy efficiency. Significant potentials lie in saving fossil energy and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. However, biotechnical processes are not environmentally friendly and sustainable per se. Negative environmental impacts could lie in high land and water use, in eutrophication and acidification.

Recent reports on the topic of industrial biotechnology focus on scientific-technical and economic developments whereas environmental and sustainability aspects have not been investigated in depth.

Objectives and approach

The focus of the Innovation Report is on an in-depth analysis of environmental and sustainability aspects of industrial biotechnology.

Moreover, the present knowledge of scientific-technical, economic as well as market and demand-side aspects will be documented.

Options will be derived how sustainability potentials of industrial biotechnology can even better be exploited.

The study is divided into the following steps:

  • Present state of the art and future perspectives of the industrial implementation of biotechnical processes.
  • Market developments, companies and business models, Germany's position in international competition.
  • Demand side of biobased products, attitudes of the population.
  • Environmental and sustainability impacts:
    • Synopsis of studies and reports on the environmental and sustainability assessment of biotechnical processes and biobased products.
    • Present state of environmental impact assessment; inference of starting points for further methodological improvements of the sustainability assessment.
    • Present state of environmental and sustainability impacts of different biobased product groups or biotechnical processes, respectively. Inference of product-group specific frame conditions and prerequisites for the realisation of positive environmental impacts or for the avoidance of unintended, negative sustainability impacts, respectively.
    • Relevance of the findings on environmental and sustainability impacts of industrial biotechnology for stakeholders; use of this knowledge by stakeholders for definition of strategies and for company activities.

    From the results of these analytical steps, needs and options for actions will be derived with respect to methodological improvements, to selected product groups and with respect to the use of knowledge by stakeholders or for strategic policy implementation.

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