By aligning with university spin-out companies to produce their breakthrough technologies on an industrial scale, IBioIC believes Scotland’s biotech sector can help confine the era of petrochemicals to the dustbin of history. By Anthony Harrington
Scotland’s drive to get to net zero by 2045 faces some significant challenges.
However, with some of the best biotechnology research in the world going on in Scottish universities, there are grounds for optimism.
Dr Mark Bustard, the CEO of the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC) believes that Scotland is well-positioned to both lower our reliance on petrochemicals and to promote sustainable green jobs.
“For us, the main theme of our work is to help Scotland deliver net zero in the timeframe the government has set,” he comments. COP26, due to be held in Glasgow from November 1–12 this year will be a tremendous showcase for all that Scotland has achieved and plans to achieve in the fight against climate change,” he says.
However, Bustard says that what is needed is a realisation that it is time to move from talking policy to delivering effective projects. “We’ve really done all the talking. We know what we need to do and there is plenty to be done, in concrete terms, about addressing the reliance of industry on petrochemicals as a feedstock,” he adds.
At present, oil-derived feedstocks are essential manufacturing building blocks for industries ranging from the pharmaceuticals industry to the chemicals and polymers sectors.
Our knowledge of engineering micro-organisms has now reached the point, he argues, where virtually all of industry’s requirements can be met by alternative bio-production methods instead of resorting to petrochemicals.
One of the keys to achieving this goal is to enable the innovative breakthroughs being made by Scotland’s university spin-out companies to start producing their breakthrough products on an industrial scale. This is where the IBioIC is focusing its efforts,
He cites the example of Celtic Renewables, founded by its current president, the micro-biologist, Professor Martin Tangney OBE. Celtic Renewables has engineered bacteria to produce acetone, butanol and ethanol on an industrial scale. The company now has a pilot refinery plant at Grangemouth that is attracting global attention.
Tangney is using a process invented by an industrial chemist, Chaim Weizmann, in the 1920s. However, the process fell into disuse when industry discovered that it could make these products much more cheaply using petroleum products. Celtic Renewables revitalised the process by ‘teaching’ the bugs to use the waste from Scotland’s whisky distilleries, thereby dramatically lowering the cost. The process also has a much lower carbon footprint.
This is exactly the kind of advancement that Bustard says his Innovation Centre is championing. “If you are using oil as a feedstock, then it is still a major carbon emitter with a hefty impact on the environment. Taking a global view of this process, looking at the environmental impact of the supply chains involved in oil-based feedstock production, it is clearly something we need to move away from,” he says.
Bustard says that he has been hugely encouraged by the way some big industrial companies are already addressing the problem. He cites the example of Unilever which has recently said that by 2030 it wants all its cleaning products, which are one of the company’s largest revenue generators, to have moved away from a reliance on petrochemical feedstocks. In future, all suppliers to Unilever will have to derive their products from bio-based feedstocks.
“Unilever is scanning the globe looking for companies who can provide them with bio-based chemicals,” he notes. Bustard expects this to have a twofold impact. On the one hand, the current supply base will have to move to alternative technologies if they wish to supply into the big industrial companies. On the other hand, it is a huge opportunity for start-ups and new players that are working on gaining critical mass, like Celtic Renewables.
“Our passion at IBioIC is to help Scottish companies make the breakthrough into manufacturing at a commercial scale. We are an industry-led organisation, with 130 member companies and we are very keen to see the impact of bio-related processes make the transition to industrial-scale outputs.”
He points out that biotechnology and bio-based manufacturing are right at the cusp of society’s pivot away from its century-old reliance on oil. As such, it has a huge role to play in helping skilled people in the oil and gas industry to make the transition into ‘green’ jobs.
“We need to generate new opportunities for these highly skilled people to transition into renewables and into the process and manufacturing industries. This is a huge opportunity and I am very proud of the way Scotland has embraced the bio-economy,” he says.
Of the 130 member companies of IBioIC, some 70 percent are micro-companies that are just starting to face the challenge of scaling up their technologies. The rest range from small to medium-sized enterprises to multinationals that are looking to translate bio-processes into their mainstream production processes.
“This is all about improving the journey from great academic science, into industrial applications. For us as an Innovation Centre, it is about helping companies to identify and exploit sustainable alternative feedstocks, and supporting groundbreaking new processes such as engineering biology,” he comments.
The centre has a number of strong relationships across Scotland’s leading universities and in the North of England. “We have funding to help individuals work with academic departments, along with funding for proof of concept prototyping. At the same time, we operate our scale-up facilities that enable people with no depth of bioprocess knowledge to move towards industrial levels of production. We can also match funding with companies, which is a great way of ensuring that they have an equal stake in the game,” he says.
The centre will work with industrial companies to help them identify feedstocks and waste streams that could be utilised in bio-processes.
“Scotland is right up there as one of the leaders of engineering biology globally. The work being done at the University of Edinburgh, for example, is second to none and we have the processes and procedures in place to take innovative technology and make it mainstream,” he concludes.
Focus on micro-organisms provides food for thought
THERE is already an encouraging number of success stories in the bio-engineering and bio-processing field.
One of the companies the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC) has supported is Cyanofeed, which is pioneering unique carbon-neutral microbial delivery platforms targeting the agriculture and aquaculture industries.
The company custom-tailors the microbial platforms to adapt them to create specific feed additives.
This in turn provides a sustainable and effective way of substituting for animal-based nutrients and chemically synthesised therapeutics.
Initially Cyanofeed’s projections were theoretical and based on data obtained in laboratory experiments which needed to be tested to generate ‘proof of concept’ data.
The task was to find ways of optimising the pellet-feed manufacturing process so that it could include the company’s microbial strains.
IBioIC provided the company with a funding award, under the Centre’s Scale-up Accelerator Programme. Cyanofeed was able to use IBioIC’s Scale Up Centres and technical team to test their theoretical projections.
Mark Bustard, IBioIC CEO explains: “The company provided five different micro-organisms they wanted to investigate.
“The team grew each of these strains in 1.5L stirred bioreactors to make enough biomass to take it on to the next stage of the project.
“This involved harvesting the microbes and treating them with several different cryoprotectants to protect them from the freeze-drying process involved in pellet manufacture.”
Samples were then freeze-dried and revived to determine the best composition of cryoprotectant, and to see which of the micro-organisms was most robust against the freeze-drying process.
As a result, Cyanofeed was able to upscale its biomass production for feeding trials conducted at the University of Stirling.
This in turn paved the way for optimised large-scale biomass processing and pellet-feed manufacturing.
The company is now able to offer acquatic and acquaculture companies microbe strains either for nutritional purposes or as a vehicle to deliver therapeutics.
By utilising the labours of micro-organisms, Cyanofeed is able to circumvent the need for expensive chemical synthetics, yielding natural, cheap and low carbon products.
Essential vitamins, minerals and therapeutics, naturally synthesised by micro-organisms can be easily incorporated into animal feed, with nutritional supplements tailor-made to clients’ requirements.