Bioeconomy for a Sustainable World
“... every single walk of life, every single way that we earn our living, is going to change not in 30 years or 20 years, but this decade.” That’s how Peter Diamandis, Founder & Executive Chairman of the XPRIZE Foundation described the environment businesses are facing today, at the Singularity University Global Summit in San Francisco.
One change effecting the way people earn a living is the move towards sustainable business models and the shift away from fossil fuels. This can be seen in some of the long-term goals that NGOs, governments and the private sector are adopting, like the UN Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs) and the Paris Agreement on climate change.
The 17 UNSDGs include some lofty ones — ending poverty and hunger, ensuring clean water and sanitation for all — and some more practical ones, like resilient infrastructure and responsible production and consumption. But underlying them all is the recognition that they must go hand in hand with inclusive and sustainable economic growth.
Similarly, the Paris Agreement addresses the importance of accelerating scientific innovation to promote economic growth while combating climate change.
Trends such as these point to entirely new economies that will eventually supplant our current framework. One such paradigm has become known as the bioeconomy. In simple terms, the bioeconomy is one that, “ … relies on renewable natural resources to produce food, energy, products and services,” as defined by Antti Vasara, President and CEO of Finland’s Technical Research Center, known as VTT.
Finland has made the bioeconomy a national priority. The “Finnish Bioeconomy Strategy” sets a course for a low-carbon and sustainable economy that will improve the lives of their citizens by generating new businesses that offer good employment, and also takes advantage of the country’s renewable natural resources and industrial expertise.
According to Vasara, it’s also a simple matter of supply and demand:
Because Finland has bountiful forests, many of their innovations revolve around wood pulp, as it contains the building blocks of biomaterials; namely cellulose and lignin. One Finnish startup, for example, is opening a plant to convert paper-grade pulp into textile fibers.
Even some of the world’s major oil companies are interested in the bioeconomy, because they see the inevitable trend away from fossil fuels as a way to meet the Paris Agreement. One way this will work is when energy is generated using sustainably produced biomass feedstock. This will result in the net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere — assuming capture and geological storage are incorporated in the plan.
Providing sustainable biofuels to power the bioeconomy is an exciting opportunity and will likely see some innovative and unusual new businesses filling the demand. Case in point: microalgae.
Microalgae are unicellular photosynthetic micro-organisms that hold great potential as a source of biofuel as well as a way to grow inputs for the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries. The challenge will be to develop processes and technology that can produce and harvest the microalgae on an industrial scale and at a competitive price.
AlgaEnergy is a Spanish bio-tech company that specializes in microalgae. They already have microalgae products like nutritional sources for the aquaculture industry as well as nutritional dietary supplements for human consumption. AlgaEnergy has recently signed a strategic partnership and equity participation agreement with Yokogawa, a leader in advanced industrial instruments, automated control technology, and digital control and data analysis solutions.
The partnership will merge AlgaEnergy’s research-based knowledge of microalgae with Yokogawa’s industrial automation, control, and measurement technology. Together, they can accelerate the development and use of microalgae in the bioeconomy, for biofuels as well as other uses. Or as Augusto Rodriguez-Villa, AlgaEnergy's president said about his partnership with Yokogawa, “We share the same vision for the future, the belief that more sustainable development is possible and that microalgae can be a key contributor towards that objective."
And Tsuyoshi Abe, senior vice president and head of the Marketing Headquarters at Yokogawa also reflected on the partnership, "Yokogawa aims to contribute directly to the UN's Sustainable Development Goals through its core business activities, and this year we established a new Life Innovation business unit in line with that.”
In fact, Yokogawa has added the bioeconomy as one of their business fields. The company recognizes that changes in the market require them to reimagine their long-term business framework. Given that the company has considerable know-how and experience “that enhance operations, from the factory floor to the boardroom,” Yokogawa sees the bioeconomy as a way to continue to maximize economic value for their customers and their shareholders.
To further lead the way, Yokogawa adopted their own set of three sustainability goals: achieve net-zero emissions, ensure the well-being of all and make the transition to a circular economy by 2050.
These internal goals are in line with many of the UNSDGs, but the goal of transitioning to a circular economy may be the most far-reaching and important of all three — because it plays to the strengths of the company and provides a model for future economic development.
A circular economy is unlike our current linear model of “take, make, dispose”, whereby raw materials are taken from the natural environment, made into products, and then the by-products, and eventually the products themselves are disposed of.
The circular economy attempts to design out waste, keeping materials in use by recycling or repurposing, or by using the waste or outputs of one manufacturing process as the inputs of another. It also involves returning materials back to the natural environment where possible. This holistic approach is a better way to use water and energy, is a sustainable form of innovative industrialization and it creates sustainable consumption and production patterns.
Just as the UNSDGs include a wide variety of subjects and issues, the paths to meet them are just as varied. Serious-minded companies that seek to make the world a better place while maintaining a viable enterprise, have a wealth of options to pursue as they reshape their business models.
The move towards a bioeconomy seems inevitable. Richard W. Oliver, the academic who heralded the bioeconomy in his seminal book, The Coming Biotech Age, predicted in 2000 that, “by the middle of the twenty-first century, all companies will be bioterials (bio-materials) companies. That is to say, all companies will produce, ship, consume, or in some other way, rely on bioterials products and processes.”
And we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s coming.
Besides cellulose and algae, there are options in biomass like those from sugarcane and corn, or even from excrement, sludge and methane gas. All these can be used to make oils, pigments, nutrients, fertilizers, food, in addition to fuel. Cells can be used as miniature industrial plants to create antibodies or other desired products.
Or, like Nobel Prize winner Yoshinori Ohsumi discovered in his research on autophagy, biological cells have the ability to break down and recycle components within them — the ultimate circular economy. The possibilities for industrial applications and refinements using biological processes are truly endless.
While dealing with change is a challenge, this is an exciting time to face it. There is certainly a demand for sustainability, why not look for ways to meet it? Or as VTT’s Antti Vasara said, “The era of renewable materials is starting and we can be driving this revolution. How could I not be optimistic and excited?”
Founded in 1915, Yokogawa engages in broad-ranging activities in the areas of measurement, control, and information. The industrial automation business provides vital products, services, and solutions to a diverse range of process industries including oil, chemicals, natural gas, power, iron and steel, and pulp and paper. With the life innovation business the company aims to radically improve productivity across the pharmaceutical and food industry value chains. The test & measurement, aviation, and other businesses continue to provide essential instruments and equipment with industry-leading precision and reliability.