Living in bio society


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I contributed this article on the bio-economy to Directions 10, published by Salterbaxter

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Living in bio society

  1. 1. 22  DIRECTIONS 2010  salterbaxter citiesinfocus Continued to sustainability. As a recent report from WWF Denmark states: ‘If we do not radically alter the system and construct a 21st century green economy we are likely to reduce the problem but not solve it entirely.’ So what is the solution? The headline finding from the WWF report entitled ‘Industrial Biotechnology: More than Green Fuel in a Dirty Economy?’ is that biotechnology is a big part of the answer. It has the potential to save the planet up to 2.5 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions per year by 2030. That’s more than Germany’s total reported emissions in 1990. At the centre of the innovation is the biorefinery. Like a new type of industrial village, it will Books have been written about it. Movies made. We are addicted to oil. But if we are to create sustainable cities and a sustainable society for the future, we need to urgently shift away from this oil- dependent society towards a ‘bio-based society’. First we must acknowledge the scale of the problem. Petroleum is most visible in the tanks of our vehicles, but it is literally everywhere. There aren’t many products you can buy today that don’t have petroleum in them or used petroleum to make them. From the computer I’m using to type this to the paper you’re reading it on, petroleum is everywhere. Part of the answer in the short term is simply to use less of it; to be more efficient. But efficiency alone won’t get us take products such as corn cobs, sugar, wood waste and methane and convert them into all kinds of useful products, from ethanol (for fuel), to proteins (for animal feed), to consumable oils and compounds (for use in paints, solvents and bio-based plastics). Many of the things that are made from hydrocarbons today will essentially be made from carbohydrates in the future. The WWF report describes four interlinked steps on biotechnologies’ path to a low-carbon, bio-based economy: 1. Improved efficiency 2. Switching to biofuels 3. Replacing petrochemicals with bio-based materials 4. Closing the loop Imagine a world where cars are fuelled by sugar, homes powered by corn and cities run on waste. Welcome to the bio-society. Living in a bio-society
  2. 2. salterbaxter  DIRECTIONS 2010  23 Each step presents a monumental challenge, but biotechnology is chipping away at every one of them. Let’s take a closer look at progress. Improved efficiency Biotechnology has made the production of crops more efficient, requiring less land and less energy. Combined with efficiency gains at the biorefinery, it has made the production of biofuels more efficient. 30 years ago it took more energy to produce a gallon of bioethanol than the energy it contained. Today, it’s more than a 2–1 gain. Bioethanol from waste products, which is being produced at small scale today, can be more than a 7–1 net energy gain. Switching to biofuels One of the fastest growing sources of energy in the world is biofuels. Today, bioethanol makes up nearly 10% of the gasoline in American vehicles, and in Brazil it’s about half. The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts that global use of petroleum- based liquid fuels will be flat over the next 15 years because biofuels will account for all of the three million barrel per day expansion in liquid fuel use. But, as the WWF report notes, bioethanol production provides the platform for the next step. Replacing petrochemicals with bio-based materials Existing bioethanol plants are platforms upon which true biorefineries of the future will be built. In addition to the bioethanol, food and animal feed they are producing today, they will also produce speciality proteins, oils and compounds for use in paints, solvents and bio-based plastics. Closing the loop Biorefineries are working to close the loop and eliminate waste in a number of ways. One model has a biorefinery adjacent to an animal feedlot so that the animal waste can be converted to biogas to power the plant; and the grains left over from ethanol production can feed the animals. Our engineers have developed a system to close the loop on water, recycling water throughout the biorefinery so that there is no discharge. One of our bioethanol plants is powered by burning waste wood and landfill gas. Three others use co-generation. To see all of these steps occurring in one biorefinery, I would invite you to come to our research centre in Scotland, South Dakota. This little community provides the corn and corn cobs that the plant converts to ten million gallons of bioethanol each year. In return, the community gets a local, sustainable market for their commodities and uses the distiller’s grains left over from bioethanol production to feed their animals. But what makes this biorefinery unique is its production process, where very little is wasted. First, let’s take the corn grain, which can roughly be divided into thirds: starch, protein (the fibre, fat and micronutrients) and carbon dioxide. At this plant, the starch is used to produce bioethanol. From the protein comes animal feed, speciality proteins, oils used to produce biodiesel and even edible fibre. The biogenic CO2 is captured, liquefied and used for beverage carbonation, municipal water treatment and other applications. The second feedstock that comes into the biorefinery is the plant residue – corn cobs, leaves and husks. The cellulose is extracted from those materials and used to produce cellulosic bioethanol. The leftovers are fed to an anaerobic digester that produces biogas power. Finally, we are researching the use of the ash from the anaerobic digester as an application that could be used to increase the soil carbon of the surrounding fields. Some of the early criticisms of bioethanol have been the vast amount of land it takes to grow the feedstock and the use of food crops to produce the fuel. Today’s bioethanol production is addressing those issues by being more efficient with the land and the feedstock. Ten years ago, an acre of corn was only capable of producing around 300 gallons of bioethanol. Today, the productive fields around our biorefineries produce more than 600 gallons per acre. With the ability to produce bioethanol from the crop waste coupled with increasing grain yields, it will eclipse 1,000 gallons per acre in the near future. All the while using the nutritious part of the kernel to produce edible food and the leftovers from the crop waste to power the biorefinery. The WWF biotechnology report cites a 2008 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) study identifying an additional two billion hectares that “are considered potentially suitable for rain fed crop production”. That presents a vast opportunity for industrial biotechnology and the biorefinery. Biotechnology may still be in its infancy in 2010, but if the current pace of innovation continues it will undoubtedly be a fundamental building block in the creation of a low-carbon, sustainable future. biorefinery Corn cobs, wood waste and methane converted into fuel, animal feed and bio-based products nathan schock PR Director POET