Strategic plan: Strategic research priority 2 - Bioenergy and industrial biotechnology
Energy and industrial materials from novel biological sources, reducing dependency on petrochemicals and helping the UK to become a low carbon economy
Positioning the UK as a low carbon economy, and meeting international targets for reducing emissions, requires a transformation in the way we produce and use energy, transport fuels, chemicals and industrial feedstocks.
High value, multi-billion pound industries must increase the sustainability of their products and operations by moving away from non-renewable, petroleum-based systems.
Industrial biotechnology offers novel solutions through the use of plants, bacteria, algae and fungi as non-fossil sources of renewable energy, materials and chemicals. The transition to a low carbon economy not only offers financial benefit to the UK but also promises to create thousands of new ‘green collar’ jobs.
Case study: Industrial biotechnology
Researchers at the University of Nottingham have devised a battery of proprietary gene technologies which are now being employed to enhance the productivity of bacterial strains in the large-scale production of chemical commodities and transport fuels from renewable plant biomass.
Increasing the use of bioenergy and biorenewables is a complex economic, environmental, technical and policy challenge. There is an urgent need to expand the range, efficiency and cost effectiveness of bioenergy. Our funding will apply the tools of modern molecular, cellular and structural biology, systems approaches and bioprocess engineering to develop sustainable bioenergy solutions.
A major target for research is to convert the large amounts of energy locked up in plant cell walls (lignocellulose) – including waste from food crops - into replacements for petrol, diesel and aviation fuel as well as a range of other chemical products.
Capitalising on the strength of UK plant and microbial science, we will support research to improve the efficiency of crop production for biomass (maintaining or improving production but with reduced inputs of energy, fertiliser, agrichemicals and water), optimise yield and composition of biomass for bioenergy, and develop new knowledge and tools to help break down plant biomass to generate bioenergy and other products.
Algae and microbes offer other potential routes to bioenergy. Cellular and molecular biology, genetics and modelling will provide knowledge to help increase the accumulation and/or secretion of target hydrocarbons, and to develop technologies to produce them at industrial scale.
Other countries, particularly the USA and Brazil, have made substantial public investments in bioenergy. We will work with international partners to benefit UK researchers and leverage BBSRC’s investment, enabling us to tackle largescale challenges that are difficult or too costly to do alone.
With its strong science base the UK is well placed to be a world-leader in industrial biotechnology, with benefits not only in producing low carbon ‘green’ products and services, but also boosting the economy through more competitive chemistry-using industries.
Research underpinning industrial biotechnology and biorefineries to produce renewable feedstocks, chemicals and materials is a high priority for BBSRC. Working with industry, other Research Councils and the Technology Strategy Board, we will fund the basic bioscience, tools and skills to advance industrial biotechnology, and particularly to understand the molecular and cellular basis of key biosynthetic processes and their regulation in a range of organisms, and manufacturing environments, and then apply this knowledge to model and improve production of biorenewable chemicals and materials.
Genetic modification and the emerging methods in synthetic biology are crucial tools in tailoring organisms for industrial biotechnology applications. We will continue to stimulate research and public dialogue around these technologies and their applications.
Since 2003 we have:
- Conducted a major review of Bioenergy research to inform future research strategies
- Invested £20M, plus circa £7M from industry, to launch the BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Centre (BSBEC). This is the biggest ever single UK public investment in bioenergy
- Established the Integrated Biorefining Research and Technology Club, bringing together academic researchers and industry to address the need to reduce dependence on oil-based feedstocks
- Supported the Renewable Materials 'Stand-alone' LINK programme, jointly with Defra; contributions from industry more than doubled the value of BBSRC’s investment to a total of £8M
Some key priorities 2010-2015
Case study: Bioenergy
Multidisciplinary research led by Rothamsted Research has generated a better understanding of the socioeconomic, environmental and land-use issues from growing large-scale bioenergy crops. This provides a framework for locating and growing energy crops.
- Contribute to the RCUK Energy programme by generating the knowledge and skills to inform a range of sustainable, low carbon bioenergy solutions
- Apply systems biology and modelling to tackle bioenergy and industrial biotechnology research challenges at a range of scales – from sub-cellular to agricultural landscape
- Build UK capacity in bioenergy research and develop the BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Centre (BSBEC) as a focus for UK bioenergy research
- Working with others, implement key aspects of the 2009 Industrial Biotechnology – Innovation and Growth Team report (footnote 1), including research to develop multi-feedstock, multiproduct biorefineries
- Strengthen links and explore opportunities for joint working with international partners, particularly the USA and Brazil, in the field of bioenergy
- Engage with stakeholders, including industry, policy makers and the public, to ensure that research in sustainable bioenergy and biorenewables addresses user needs and concerns
- Continue to explore societal issues associated with bioenergy and industrial biotechnology, for example landscape changes from bioenergy crops, and synthetic biology as a tool in industrial biotechnology
- IB 2025: Maximising UK opportunities from Industrial Biotechnology in a Low Carbon Economy, a report to government by the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation and Growth Team, May 2009
Corporate Policy and Strategy