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Sunday, June 29, 2008

Biotechnology to address many global environmental concerns:

Biotechnology to address many global environmental concerns:

A. Industrial biotechnology has come of age. Improved industrial sustainability through biotechnology addresses many global environmental concerns. Biotechnology has clear environmental advantages and is economically competitive in a growing number of industrial sectors. It enables reductions of material and energy consumption, as well as pollution and waste generation, for the same level of industrial production. Continued technical innovation, including that based upon recombinant DNA technology, is vital for the wider utilisation of biotechnology by industry.

B. With biotechnology, the emphasis is no longer on the removal of pollutants from an already damaged environment, but on the need to reshape industrial process technologies to prevent pollution at the source. Achieving ‘‘clean technology’’ or ‘‘industrial sustainability’’ – the two terms are largely congruent – will not be possible without a steady stream of creative innovations based on advanced science and technologies, among which biotechnology is likely to play an increasing role.

C. Although definitions of sustainable development have frequently proved elusive, it is clear that any move towards industrial sustainability will affect all stages of a product’s or process’s life cycle. It will require new design principles based on a global and holistic approach to reducing environmental impacts: global because these impacts transcend national borders, holistic because short-term, piecemeal solutions to address a succession of issues in isolation will be less and less effective. One important means of integrating environmental issues into industrial design and operations is the adoption of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA).

D. There are three main drivers of clean technology:

(a) Economic competitiveness, with companies considering the advantages of clean products and processes in terms of market niches or cost advantages;

(b) Government policies, which enforce or encourage changes in manufacturing practices; and

(c) Public pressure, which takes on strategic importance as companies seek to establish environmental legitimacy.

E. It is possible to foresee a growing role for industrial process biotechnology, both because it may afford clear economic and environmental benefits, and because the power of the tool itself continues to grow. The expectations of greater cleanliness come from the observation that living systems manage their chemistry rather more efficiently than man-made chemical plants, and that their wastes tend to be recyclable and biodegradable. This, along with our increasing ability to manipulate biological materials and processes, strongly points to a significant impact on the future of manufacturing industries.

F. Here there is a brief picture of how modern process biotechnology is penetrating industrial operations:

(i) Biotechnology embraces a wide range of techniques, and none of these will apply across all industrial sectors. Nonetheless, the technology is so versatile that many industries that have not used biological sciences in the past are now exploring the possibility of doing so. Already, the economic competitiveness of a variety of biotechnological applications to achieve cleanliness has been established. This is essential, as environmental benefits alone have seldom driven the adoption of biotechnology-based processes. Such processes have been successfully integrated into some large-scale operations. However, a number of problems remain for industrial applications, particularly the entrenched infrastructure of companies that have traditionally relied on physical and chemical technology alone and whose engineers have no training in life sciences or technologies.

(ii) Chemicals manufacturing is a major generator of materials, a major consumer of energy and non-renewable resources, and a major contributor to waste and pollution. In these sub-sectors, market penetration of biotechnology varies. It is in the fine chemical industries that the impact of clean biotechnology is most visible.

(iii)While fossil carbon (oil, coal) is the single most important raw material for energy generation and for chemicals, the concomitant CO2 emissions are a source of increasing concern because CO2 is a major greenhouse gas. Biotechnology can contribute to reducing fossil carbon consumption and hence global warming in various ways: improving industrial processes and energy efficiency, and producing biomass-based materials and clean fuels.

(iv) In pulp and paper, market penetration of biotechnology used for clean production is particularly high in many of the developed nations, and biotechnology is becoming more important in the manufacture of textiles and leather throughout the western world.

(v) In the food and feed sector, the impact of biotechnology on clean industrial processes seems to be greatest in the United States.

(vi) Biotechnology for mining and metals recovery covers two major technologies: bioleaching/minerals bio-oxidation, where superior cleanliness and economic profitability have been claimed in specific cases, and metals bioremediation and recovery.

(vii) In the energy sector, biotechnology has had a major effect both on economics and on environmental impacts. It has improved the overall efficiency of processes, particularly in the area of pollution control. Processes currently under development, such as bio-diesel, bio-ethanol and bio-desulphurisation, seek to replace energy-intensive and polluting systems with systems that are more environmentally friendly. The effect of rDNA methods on these technologies will be great, but large-scale application of rDNA has only recently begun and has not yet had dramatic effects.

G. Although the potential of biotechnology to reduce raw materials and energy consumption as well as wastes is attractive, there is a need for further encouragement, notably by government, particularly when the economic advantages are not overwhelming in the early stages of adoption.

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