August 26, 2002

Biotechnology offers potential for faster route to industrial sustainability

Over the past 25 to 30 years, biotechnology has evolved into a set of powerful tools capable of optimizing the efficiency of bioprocesses and the specific characteristics of bioproducts. These improvements, says a new Industry Canada analysis, offer great potential for moving industry more quickly toward sustainability and decoupling economic growth from environmental degradation and deteriorating quality of life.

The study points out that microorganisms used for industrial bioprocessing of for production of industrial enzymes are carefuly selected to avoid the use of pathogenic organisms. Moreover, their use is subject to environmental regulations, such as the New Substances Notification regulations under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, as well as similar regulations in other countries.

Sustainable industrial development implies constantly assessing and improving industrial performance, so as to ensure that industrial activity is economically viable, environmentally compatible and socially responsible, says the study.

At the most basic level, this means increasing the eco-efficiency of industrial production, i.e. doing more with less. A major way of achieving this objective is through cleaner production, and biotechnology offers one means of improving industrial eco-efficiency. The analysis cites four leading areas where the application of biotechnology is already accelerating progress toward industrial sustainability.

1. Enzymes, extracted from naturally-occurring microorganisms, plants and animals, can biologically catalyze chemical reactions with high efficiency and specificity. Such processes usually use less energy and produce less waste (requiring treatment and/or disposal) than conventional chemical processes.

2. Metabolic engineering involves modifying the metabolic pathways of microorganisms through genetic engineering, so that each cell becomes a highly efficient "mini reactor," producing more in a single stage than would result through conventional organic chemical processes.

3. Industrial ecology is the term applied to groups of companies which mimic the co-operative action of organisms in natural ecosystems by clustering around the processing of a feedstock such as biomass so that the byproduct of one is the raw material for another. This also enables the more efficient use of energy, such as waste heat.

4. Finally, bioproducts are the result of converting plant biomass, through fermentation or other processes, into fuels, chemicals and other materials that are also renewable and result in no net greenhouse gas emissions. These biologically-derived chemicals are generally less toxic and less persistent than their petrochemical counterparts.

The analysis is based on a report by the OECD task force on Biotechnology for Sustainable Industrial Development titled "The Application of Biotechnology to Industrial Sustainability." It includes a number of case studies from the OECD report illustrating how companies in numerous industry sectors, among them chemicals, polymers, mining and metal refining, energy and food processing, are using biotechnology to reduce the cost and environmental impact of their production activities.

Review of the case studies has produced several conclusions. While the application of biotechnology offers both economic and environmental benefits for a wide range of industries, moving them toward more sustainable production. To achieve this, however, further development of biotechnology and supporting technologies will be needed, as well as policies that provide incentives for more sustainable production.

The Industry Canada study points to a need for improved tools for assessing the economic and environmental performance of biotechnology during its development. In addition, it adds that even large companies may not have in-house all the expertise needed to develop more efficient bioproducts and bioprocesses. Consequently, collaboration with university and government researchers, as well as with other companies, will contribute to sucessful introduction of theses products and processes.

The study may be viewed online at, under "What's New."

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