Comment: Biotech can power a sustainable Scots economy

If you're using plants as your main feedstock, you capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, says Archer. Picture: Guy Hinks
If you're using plants as your main feedstock, you capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, says Archer. Picture: Guy Hinks
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In news that was music to every Scottish biotech company’s ears, earlier this month the Scottish Government set a legally binding target to end our country’s contribution to global warming by 2045, by achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.

This is exactly what our government needs to do to boost the bio-economy. Without targets like this, it’s difficult to incentivise companies to stop doing what is the cheapest and fastest thing – relying on fossil fuels and products derived from crude oil. ­However, this new target will surely mean companies who contribute to ­reducing our carbon footprint will be rewarded appropriately.

Reducing carbon emissions is at the heart of what industrial biotechnology (IB) is about. Everything we do at the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC), from a company-led research programme to a PhD project, is based on the need for sustainability. Any time we can make a chemical, feedstock or fuel using IB, we are leaving fossil fuels in the ground. IB uses plant-based sources, and if you’re using plants as your main feedstock, you capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Here’s a great example. We are carrying out a study looking at the economics and sustainability of reintroducing sugar beet crops to Fife. The sugar from these crops can be used for both food and other products, such as converting it to bioethanol for use in transport fuels. Currently, Scotland must import every litre of bioethanol it uses. However, if we could grow sugar beet successfully in Fife, with Grangemouth close by, the whole production cycle for this greener fuel could be carried out within a 50-mile radius. This could give Scotland a very large-scale opportunity.

Polyethylene accounts for around a third of the total plastics market. Ethylene, which is used to produce polyethylene, is currently produced in Grangemouth using fossil fuels. In the US, a company named Croda uses corn sugar to produce ethylene which is 100 per cent renewable and 100 per cent plant-based. We’re not yet doing the same in Scotland, but it’s a chance that can materialise with the right supply chains from sugar beet.

Then there are a host of smaller ­opportunities within regular ­chemical manufacturing. Algae, for example, is useful as a food for salmon. One of our member companies, MiAlgae, uses the co-products from Scotland’s whisky industry to grow omega-3 rich algae that can be fed to salmon. Not only is this a healthier way to feed fish, it also has the potential to make the whisky industry carbon negative.

Scotland’s other big opportunity is renewable energy – we are better positioned than any other European country in terms of wind power. Carbon dioxide is the lowest energy form of carbon – if you want to do anything useful with it, you must put some energy back in. If you can use renewable ­energy, like wind, solar or wave power, to ­convert carbon dioxide into something ­useful, that’s ideal.

IBioIC member company Drochaid Research Services is converting carbon ­dioxide and hydrogen into liquid fuels. This has massive potential; some experts believe it could be the world’s biggest industry within decades. That same cheap, renewable energy source can power the lights to grow the algae that feeds the fish, or to generate green hydrogen. Everyone, especially the environment, benefits from investment in renewable power.

IBioIC’s mission is to transition fossil fuel-based industries towards more sustainable sources. In a race between a chemist and a biotechnologist to create a way to make a new chemical product, the chemist will usually win, because the status quo is faster, cheaper and built on 150 years of knowledge.

However, the biotechnologist will get you something sustainable and potentially with improved performance. Thanks to the vision of the Scottish Government, sustainability will soon be as big a driver as time and money.

- Ian Archer, technical director at IBioIC