• 12 May 2006
  • News
  • By Narayan Kulkarni



Biotech's Third Wave

The power of industrial biotechnology to create more environmentally sustainable processes, can help countries move away from a petroleum-based economy to a bio-based economy.

  • World's first pilot 'biorefinery' to produce ethanol from cellulose starts operation in Ottawa, Canada

  • World's first commercial cellulosic ethanol plant currently being built in Spain

  • Ethanol producers in the US may achieve the target of 8 billion gallons of ethanol by 2012, set by the government, much before that year

  • McKinsey and Co announces Industrial Biotechnology as one of the fastest growing sectors, reaching $160 billion revenues by 2010

These are not some straws in the wind. Just some of the most recent efforts to convert straws from agricultural waste into ethanol to fuel the ever growing transportation needs of the world.

And driving the change is a small segment of the biotechnology sector that has more or less remained invisible from the public arena. But industrial biotechnology (IB) is all set for a makeover, thanks to the galloping petroleum prices and world's relentless quest for cheaper and more readily available sources of energy.

Enzymes which have made IB a force to reckon with product categories such as food, detergents, industrial processes, are coming to the rescue of the world with their ability to convert starch from agricultural waste into fuel-quality ethanol. Though ethanol has been produced for over three decades from agricultural wastes, the cost of production was very high compared to the average price of petroleum till recent years.

The villain of the piece is cellulose found in most agricultural wastes which resist biochemical reactions that lead to the production of ethanol. Now the industry has developed a range of enzymes called cellulases which have improved the conversion of cellulose into ethanol. And started the biofuel boom.

Suddenly, industrial biotechnology (IB) is a promising frontier. Besides, the enzyme-led processes are now in position to deliver a range of biodegradable plastics, less energy-intensive chemical processes, biofuels, all at a time energy and environmental issues are garnering more and more global attention.

Benefits of biofuels

  • Conventional ethanol and ethanol form cellulose could eliminate the US demand for petroleum by the year 2050

  • With advances in industrial biotechnology, ethanol could be cheaper than petroleum, saving consumers $20 billion per year on fuel costs by 2050

  • By 2050, growing and producing crops to make these fuels could provide farmers with additional profits of more than $ 5 billion per year.

  • Biofuels production could replace 100 billion gallons of petroleum by 2050

  • Biofuels could reduce greenhouse gases by 1.7 billion tons per year, equal to more than 80 percent of America's transportation related emissions in 2002.

Source: Growing Energy: How Biofuels Can Help End America's Oil Dependance, authored by Nathanael Greene, Natural Resources Defense Council.

"These are not promises of a distant future. Last year alone, developments in enzyme technology, bioenergy policy initiatives, and global economic drivers such as exorbitant fossil fuels advanced IB toward an inflection point of accelerated adoption and market penetration. The future has indeed arrived," writes Ellyn Kerr, editor, industrial biotechnology, in a guest column in Beyond Borders, the 20th annual edition of the Global Biotechnology Report, released by Ernst & Young.

In fact Kerr calls it the biotech industry's third wave, which is following the first wave (health biotech) and second wave (agribiotech).

According to the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) of the US, production of ethanol from starch has increased 22 percent a year over the past three years to 4 billion gallons in 2005. Currently, sugar is produced using cellulase enzymes from cellulose found in agricultural residues like corn stalks, wheat straw, dedicated energy crops like switchgrass. These sugars are then fermented into ethanol and other renewable chemicals.

BIO argues that producing ethanol from both starch and cellulose helps farmers reap a double bonanza from the same fields. And biorefineries that will come up near the source of raw materials will create more jobs in the rural areas and also reduce the dependence on imported petroleum products.

A report by BIO pointed out that IB companies have cut the cost of cellulase enzymes 30-fold over the past three years, from over $5 to under $ 0.20 per gallon of ethanol. The world's first commercial cellulosic plant is being built in Spain and is scheduled to open in 2007.

Biotech and energy experts predict that increased availability of ethanol will lead to the production of a new generation of ethanol capable flexi-fuel vehicles. According to BIO, "industrial biotech is creating a dramatic paradigm shift in biofuels production that will allow us to start tilling for our transportation fuel instead of drilling for it."

Biofuels has attracted the attention of the world's political leaders. Almost every international speaker at BIO, from India's Science and Technology minister, Kapil Sibal to former US President Bill Clinton, stressed the importance of biofuels and the changing importance of biotechnology.

In fact, the world has taken the cue from US President George Bush's speech early this year which stressed the need to break America's addiction to oil. He had also announced a plan to commercialize ethanol from cellulose and make it competitive with petroleum.

IB companies like Genencor, Diversa and Novozymes are making things happen quickly. Some of the new enzymes developed by these companies have increased the bioethanol yield form cereal crops like wheat, barley and rye. This has also opened up a new range of raw materials such as genetically engineered sugar crops, citrus waste from the juice processing industry, variety of micro algae and waste vegetable oils.

So be prepared for the hitherto invisible segment of biotechnology gathering force and unleash its benefits in tsunami-like waves in the coming decades.

Narayanan Suresh in Chicago


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