How to make industry greener

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Researcher working with a plant

Plastic bags made out of corn starch, wall plugs made out of castor oil or plant fertiliser made out of coconut shells – all of these products can already be bought in shops in many countries around the world. But how about fuel made from algae or a wood-based substitute for concrete? As yet these are but dreams for the future. Researchers in Germany are busy exploring such options, as it is hoped that ideas like these will make possible a new and sustainable economic approach: intelligent processes, services and products that are based on microorganisms and plants rather than petroleum, as has been the case up until now. As far as possible, the idea is to produce such products without using any of our precious agricultural land, as this would restrict food production.

2.4 billion euros spent on research projects

In 2010, Germany rolled out a research programme designed to pave the way for the first time for a shift towards a bio-based industry and society. By the end of 2016, 2.4 billion euros had been invested in bioeconomic research projects. “Research is currently proceeding in three different directions”, explains Professor Daniela Thrän, who heads the Department of Bioenergy at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ in Leipzig. What are the specific objectives?

  • Foodstuffs are to become more healthy, with a global food supply ensured by a sustainable agricultural system
  • New production systems based on microorganisms are to be created: there are for example certain types of fungi that can be used to produce itaconic acid – which can be used to make certain coatings
  • Petroleum is to be substituted by intelligent materials and new energy sources in all situations where sun and wind are not available as alternatives

Alternatives to petroleum

Petroleum is still used in all kinds of different products – everything from fuels and plastics to cosmetics and paints, and even medical drugs. Yet petroleum is a limited natural resource. What is more, combustion of this fossil fuel pollutes the air, and its emissions are regarded as one of the main causes of climate change. One goal in bioeconomics is therefore to come up with alternatives to petroleum.

Why bacteria are fed sugar

Isobutene is one of the many basic substances in the chemical industry that are produced from petroleum. Among other things, it is used in the production of fuels, fuel additives and synthetics and flavouring agents. Now, for the first time, genetically manipulated bacteria are to help produce a biological version: bio-isobutene. To this end, bacteria are “fed” with sugar made from sugar beet or with glucose syrup made from grains. Since early 2017, a pilot plant at the Fraunhofer Center for Chemical-Biotechnological Processes CBP has been producing isobutene from sugar. The Fraunhofer researchers developed the production process and are now exploring how it could be adapted to an industrial scale. The project was commissioned by the Franco-German company Global Bioenergies, which set up the production facility.

Tapping into a new fuel source

Researchers at the UFZ are hoping to tap into a new fuel source: hydrogen. This involves combining bacteria and sunlight. The scientists are pinning their hopes on the special abilities of cyanobacteria, which are microorganisms that feed off light and use the light’s energy to split water into its constituent parts. This produces hydrogen, the fuel of the future. If this chemical reaction in the bacteria could be exploited such as to produce large amounts of hydrogen, an environmentally-friendly and essentially inexhaustible source of energy would become available.

Wood-based concrete: the building material of the future

Construction could also be made more sustainable. Concrete for example has to be reinforced with steel when used in multi-storey buildings. This makes the individual construction elements solid and extremely heavy. Their production and transport consume large amounts of energy. Wood could prove a useful solution here. Engineers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Wood Research are therefore exploring how concrete elements could be made not only more stable but also lighter through the addition of beech wood particles – which would also improve their insulating effect. Alongside bio-based energy, the use of wood as a raw material and in construction is another research focus at the BioEconomy Cluster, a consortium of research institutions and companies in Central Germany that are keen to drive forward the bioeconomy revolution.

It will be decades before petroleum disappears from the material cycles of our economy entirely, but the first steps towards the transition have been taken.