Industrial biotechnology is one of the most promising technologies around; it has the potential to address some of the world’s greatest challenges, such as feeding a growing population and offering new alternatives to our scarce natural resources. Although there is a long way to go, if industrial biotechnology reaches its full potential it has the potential to impact the world.
Biotechnology is not a new concept; traditional products like bread, beer, cheese, wine, and yoghurt all make use of natural processes. In the 1800s, Louis Pasteur proved that fermentation was the result of microbial activity. Then in 1928, Sir Alexander Fleming managed to extract penicillin from mold. In the 1940s, large-scale fermentation techniques were developed to make industrial quantities of this wonder drug, but it wasn’t until after the second world war, that the biotechnology revolution began, making way to modern industrial biotechnology as we know today.
Since that time, industrial biotechnology has produced enzymes for use in our daily lives and for the manufacturing sector. In the main, industrial biotechnology involves the microbial production of enzymes, which are specialised proteins. These enzymes have evolved in nature to be super-performing biocatalysts that facilitate and speed-up complex biochemical reactions. These amazing enzyme catalysts are what make industrial biotechnology such a powerful technology.
Below are 5 ways industrial biotechnology is in our homes.
- Alcohol production is one of the most basic applications of industrial biotechnology. For instance, beer is made from water, a starch source such as barley, brewer’s yeast and a flavouring such as hops. The starch in the barley must be converted to sugar by enzymes (which are activated when the barley is malted) then fermented (the brewer’s yeast metabolises the sugars to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide). Enzymes and microbes are two common tools used in industrial biotechnology.
- First generation biofuel is produced by fermenting plant-derived sugars to ethanol, using a similar process to that used in beer and wine-making, or by converting plant-oils to biodiesel. It requires crops such as sugar cane, corn, wheat, oil seed rape or sugar beet. Biofuels such as bio ethanol and biodiesel are blended with petrol and diesel to meet legislation on greenhouse gas emissions. Blending bio fuels into road transport fuel can reduce their carbon impact. The fuel quality directive allows for up to 10% ethanol to be blended into petrol. Reducing the carbon footprint by producing aviation fuel from bio-based feedstocks is also heavily in development, with biorefineries being constructed to produce low-carbon alternative fuels to fossil-derived jet fuel.
- Traditionally, the industrial sugar used for microbial fermentation is extracted from cereal crops, however only a small proportion of the crop is used, as the majority of sugars are inaccessible to traditional processes. The remaining fraction is known as lignocellulosic biomass and is generally discarded. Development is ongoing to access the sugars locked up in waste-derived feedstocks such as agricultural residues, forestry residues and post consumer waste.
- Bioplastics, made from biopolymers are already utilised in plastic food packaging, mobile phone cases, sunglasses, pens and personal care packaging for products such as shampoos and conditioners. CPI is investigating other potential applications for products such as Dyson vacuum cleaners.
- Fabrics have been in use for most of this century and the fermentation vat is probably the oldest known dyeing process.
Polyester is a synthetic polymer fiber produced from fossil fuel and is used to make clothing, blankets, carpets, and other fabrics. Many biochemicals are also used in the production of dyes, tanning agents, nylon and polyester, all of which are vital materials in the production of textiles for carpets, clothing and upholstery.