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

Informationen on the project

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

Subject and objective of the project

For many years, great expectations have been expressed with regard to the economic and ecological potential of industrial biotechnology, also referred to as »white« biotechnology. Industrial biotechnology is ascribed the potential of providing energy-efficient and resource-efficient industrial production processes which enable the comprehensive development of biomass as a renewable industrial raw material in order to substitute fossil resources in the long-term and to contribute to environmental and climate protection. Thus, it is hoped that industrial biotechnology represents a significant element within a so-called »bioeconomy« to be established.

Against this background, the TAB has been commissioned by the Committee on Education, Research and Technology Assessment of the German Bundestag to provide an overview of the procedures, applications and economic perspectives of industrial biotechnology as well as to work on the current scientific debates concerning the environmental and sustainability potentials of industrial biotechnology. The resulting innovation analysis includes two complementary reports: The (TAB working Report No. 168) comprehensively deals with the underlying scientific and technological developments and examines the market potentials of different products of industrial biotechnology. The (TAB working Report No. 169) focuses on the environmental and sustainability potentials of processes and products. Both parts of the analysis mainly concentrate on the potentials for a material use of biomass.


Procedures, applications, economic perspectives

The term »industrial biotechnology« covers a multitude of different production procedures and products. Production processes using industrial biotechnology are based on the metabolism of organisms (mostly bacteria or fungi) which catalyse the transformation of biomass as a raw material into the respective target product. The combination of genetic engineering, advanced metabolic engineering, systems biology and synthetic biology is the state of the art for optimising production organisms and their production-relevant properties. Efficient bioprocess development and upscaling to the industrial production scale require an integration of biocatalyst optimisation and process development.

Procedures of industrial biotechnology are traditionally established in industry sectors where agricultural commodities and other natural substances are industrially processed. This includes industry sectors like food and beverage, leather, pulp and paper as well as the textile industry. In environmental engineering as well, biotechnical procedures for the treatment of waste water, exhaust air, contaminated soils and organic residues are widely spread. The traditionally research-intensive and innovative chemical industry, however, plays a key role in industrial biotechnology, as it has set strategic priorities and established corresponding competences and networks. Moreover, together with mechanical and plant engineering, it provides a substantial part of innovation services for downstream industries. Industrial biotechnology focuses on the production of fine and specialty chemicals which represent the economically most important sector of the German chemical industry.

Due to the increasing maturity and options for commercialisation in industrial biotechnology, its economic significance is growing as well. In retrospect, however, many market forecasts proved to be too optimistic: The future increases have been overestimated, i. a. because the speed and level of commercialisation of industrial biotechnology are significantly influenced by prices of raw materials, technological breakthroughs, requirements regarding the sustainability balance of processes and products as well as financing issues. Due to the currently low prices for fossil resources and the close coupling of prices for agricultural commodities and crude oil, a significant improvement of the relative cost competitiveness of bio-based products compared to oil-based products is not to be expected for the time being.

In industrial biotechnology, large companies having their main business in the chemicals or agro-food sector are playing a key role as innovators and producers. In Germany, approximately 10 % of the dedicated biotech companies can be assigned to the field of industrial biotechnology. These companies focus on services and technology development, but in some cases also have taken up production activities. In view of its international competitiveness in the sector of industrial biotechnology, Germany has a strong position with regard to technological knowledge. Macroeconomic effects are most likely to be observed with regard to safeguarding existing jobs, whereas a significant absolute increase in employment or gains in market shares will be rather unlikely in the future as well. This is typical for interdisciplinary technologies such as industrial biotechnology. For this reason, its significance with regard to the growth of established industry sectors should not be underestimated.

Environmental and sustainability potentials

A comprehensive evaluation of the environmental and sustainability potentials of industrial biotechnology faces several fundamental difficulties. Thus, there is a multitude of different processes, procedures and products of industrial biotechnology that are involved in various technical and economic contexts. There are fundamental restrictions for available studies with regard to the extent and comparability of the detected impact dimensions. Altogether, only few general or comprehensive statements can be made.

In principle, the use of industrial biotechnology procedures enables cost-effective, energy-efficient production under mild production conditions (with regard to pressure, temperature, pH value etc.). Furthermore, industrial biotechnology is characterised by the fact that production is generally taking place in contained systems (bioreactors). Thus, contamination of the environment is largely avoided or even excluded. In view of safety concerns that have been expressed, e. g. with regard to the discharge of genetically modified organisms from contained systems, no reliable indications could be identified.

The comprehensive analysis of the relative environmental and sustainability impacts of different product groups of industrial biotechnology revealed that compared to conventional products, the production of the examined substances – which are bio-based, i. e. based on the processing of biomass – often helps to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. In return, however, negative environmental impacts can be due to large-scale cultivation of biomass by means of intensive agriculture, e. g. the pollution of water with excessive nutrient levels, stratospheric ozone depletion and soil acidification. Though, there are considerable uncertainties with regard to quantitative impact assessments.

The long-term availability of sustainably produced biomass in sufficient quantities is an essential prerequisite for any expansion of bioeconomy. In this context, it is undisputed that priority has to be given to the production of food and feed. In Germany, approximately 3.5 million tons of agricultural raw materials per year are processed into industrial products. It is the subject of research to explore alternative sources of raw materials that do not serve as food or feed at the same time. These sources particularly include wood (lignocellulose), organic residues (from agriculture, forestry or household waste) as well as the greenhouse gas CO2.

A decisive factor for the overall balance with regard to sustainability and the question to what extent industrial biotechnology can contribute to a bioeconomy is the availability and sustainable production of corresponding quantities of biomass taking into consideration land-use competition with the production of food and feed on the limited agricultural land available. With regard to this question, numerous studies with very different results are available from the context of the provision of bioenergy. Altogether, it is obvious that – even in case of an expansion of the correspondingly used agricultural land in Germany – biomass cannot be the only basis of raw material used for industrial production.