Engineering Biology innovators lay out a path to sustainability

1 June 2022 | Muriel Cozier

As the chemical using industry is called upon to create materials and products that meet the need for sustainability, biological feedstocks are displacing hydrocarbons. This shift is welcomed. However, taking these greener routes comes with challenges that the chemical sector must grapple with to deliver materials that perform as well as their hydrocarbon-based counterparts.

Engineering biological systems to obtain the desired outcomes for the material being produced, all the while maintaining economic viability, is seeing the chemical industry turn to an array of technologies to meet the new demands. Companies are adopting innovation strategies that harness capabilities including artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and robotics.

A one-day event, Engineering Biology – Applications for Chemistry-using Business, held at SCI’s headquarters in London in May, gave some of the chemical sector’s leading companies the opportunity to share ways that engineering biological systems is allowing them to pivot and navigate a new sustainable landscape.

Collaborate to mitigate risk

Rodrigo Santos, Member of the Board of Bayer AG and President of the company’s Crop Science Division, said; ‘This crisis affects us all and needs the support of everyone to solve it. Our Pledge further puts into practice Bayer’s commitment to help end hunger through alignment of our investments and business operations to achieve this goal.’

One theme that became apparent was the need for increased to collaboration – not only to share knowledge, but also to mitigate risk. ‘Croda has traditionally been a company that innovates in-house,’ said Croda’s Head of Global Development and Research and technical lead for Croda’s Technology Investment Group, Dr Damien Kelly. ‘However, the need for increased capability has led to greater collaboration and we are growing the number of external biotech partnerships through open innovation and technology investments for start-ups.’

The collaborative route was also set out by Dr Leonardo Magneschi, Head of Molecular Biology at Ingeza. The company is a leader is applied engineering biology, and works with customers across many sectors in the design, development and biomanufacture of chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and biofuel products. Magneschi explained that Ingenza had developed a range of tools that allowed a project to progress from the stage of molecular biology to fermentation to scale-up at an accelerated pace, thus leading to reduced costs for their customers. ‘Providing these capabilities to SMEs could be the difference between success and failure,’ Magneschi noted.

The bottom line needs to be considered

The possibility of failure was not far from the minds of speakers and delegates, and while the focus was on application of enabling technologies, the need to understand financial implications was brought to the fore. Johnson Matthey’s Laura Wells, Corporate Technology Graduate Partner, shared insights on reconciling the sustainable manufacturing of commodity chemicals with feasible techno-economic outcomes. Wells noted, during a panel discussion, that graduates at the company are trained to be commercially minded. ‘I would say that there is a gap in this [financial] knowledge for many graduates and therefore not a clear understanding of financial implications,’ she said. Indeed, many agreed that finance was likely to be one of the biggest barriers preventing companies making the strides needed to green their products and supply chains.

Bottom line

While ensuring that the financial risks have been considered, life cycle analysis (LCA) is also highlighted as a key element in developing greener processes technologies and avoiding unintended consequences. Markus Pompejus, Vice President Innovation and Scouting at BASF made clear that, for an integrated global producer like BASF, LCA was important in developing sustainable production methods. Highlighting a quote from Ólafur Ögmundarson, The Novo Nordisk Foundation for Biosustainability, Pompejus noted; ‘The fact that something is bio doesn’t always mean that it is better,’

The financial and life cycle implications could go some way to explaining why biology has only been recently allied with chemistry in industry. However, Ted Chapman, Director, Biotechnology Development GSK proposed that perhaps data was the issue in slowing the introduction of engineering biology. ‘Good data is the key to getting great development,’ Chapman noted. ‘What people want are simple ways to analyse their data and use their raw materials to create the outcome the customer wants.’

Sustainability can drive profitability

What is notable about biotechnology and engineering biology is the application across all sectors of chemistry and the impact it is set to have on future sustainability. But, as pointed out by Bayer’s Heemanshu Patel, Formulation Innovation and Strategy Lead, sustainability must go hand-in-hand with the profitability needed to provide the means for future development of the solutions that society needs. ‘At Bayer we are linking sustainability to the core of our business and our driver in research and development and technology innovation,’ Patel noted. ‘This innovation is being driven by the multitude of societal issues that need solutions. Sustainability and new chemistry are the keys by which Bayer can unlock improved crop protection and improved environmental impact. We are using our new processes to pursue breakthrough technologies that will have a positive impact on agriculture and offer transformational solutions across the board.’

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