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Concept Discussion: What is the Bio-based Economy?


I was recently asked why this site is called "Bio-Based Ideas". So I thought I would give a brief answer before leading into today's post. There are several reasons for naming this site the way it is. For one, having been trained as a biologist, I write what I know and am interested in. Naturally, many of the posts discussing ideas come with a biological slant. I wanted to make that clear in the title of the blog. But "bio" also comes from Greek meaning "life". And just as life organically grows and evolves, the posts here are meant to capture the richness of diversity of ideas. Lastly, it is my personal belief that the richness of biological ideas will have an increasing impact on our societies especially in this century. And so today with the last post on directed evolution in mind, I want to discuss:

What is the bio-based economy?

There are two basic ideas the bio-based economy relies on.

1.) Transition to biobased, renewable resources:
Today's economy largely functions on non-renewable fossil resources. The clearest examples can be found in transportation and energy production: Up to this point, the majority of transportation depends on oil, and the major energy source for electricity generation is coal. Our dependence stretches far beyond the obvious as almost every single product we use came from fossil oil-derived products - from the plastic keyboard of the laptop I am typing on to the food we eat. The latter may seem surprising, but even modern agriculture relies on fossil resources which starts with the heavy overuse of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides used to grow the plants to all the fuel consuming equipment used to harvest, process and distribute the food. The impact of our reliance can be seen in the increased degradation of the environment.

In a biobased economy, the starting point for many industrial process would not be a fossil resource (i.e.: oil, natural gas, coal, uranium, phosphate) but resources that are renewable or can regrow. An examples of this are the plans to produce bio-ethanol from switch grass.

2.) Transition to bio-based manufacturing
The bio-based economy also relies on the increased use of bio-based manufacturing strategies. As the name implies, bio-based manufacturing relies on "living organisms" or the products produced from these organisms to manufacture what we desire. This idea is not actually a new one. Human kind has started to use these processes for many centuries to make basic food products such as wine, cheese, bread and yogurt. In the bio-based economy, the use of microorganisms as bio-refineries will be enhanced because bioinformatical and biotechnological techniques allow us to customize microbial organisms so that they can do things they were not able to do so before. Current examples include the manufacturing of a raw form of insulin from bacterial cells. On the horizon are the development of biofuels, and plastics from such organisms. It is important to note increasingly these processes are replacing traditional chemical processes which may often use toxic chemicals and use more energy. One particular example may be Verenium's enzymes that replace the use of chlorine in bleaching paper so that it has a nice white color.

Concept-wise, these descriptions may sound a bit dry. A picture may say more than a thousand words. So following, I found a video on YouTube that exemplifies some of the concepts mentioned above. The video needs to be taken with a grain of salt. It is a bit dated as it still promotes the use of first generation biofuels. Although it is a promotional video meant to attract potential investors to invest money into green-biotechnology in region of Europe, it is quite illustrative to imagine how a bio-based economy may affect us  daily in the future.

Video 1. Towards a Biobased Economy.

The Bio-based Economy and the Sustainable Economy

The bio-based economy may often be mentioned in conjunction with a sustainable economy confusing some. It's important to note that these are note competing ideas. Rather both concepts are motivated from the realization that environmental degradation and depletion of fossil resources go hand in hand. Hence, both terms imply a reduction of fossil resource use and a reduction of our impact on the environment. While both terms may overlap by quite a bit, they put slightly different emphasize. The sustainable economy refers more to a framework of conditions that simply said state that we shall  not:

  • take more from the environment than what it can replace.
  • put back more waste into the environment than it can deal with. 

A bio-based economy more heavily emphasizes how we are going to get there by defining what sources and  techniques may be used in the manufacturing of products that drive our economy.  Both concepts are needed so that we can convert our often linear production processes (from raw material to waste material) to a more closed system in which the waste material of one processes becomes the input material of another.

P.S. (2011-02-18): I have since this article came out done a bit more research on actual companies that incorporate these values into their products. Feel free to read my investigations into California companies that:

1.) Seek to produce biofuels
2.) Seek to produce other bio-based products

Suggested Reading:

Although I did not specifically quote any specific passages this time, the following are sources I read to synthesize this blog post.

[1] Octave S, Thomas D. Towards an industrial metabolism. Biochimie. 2009 Jun;91(6):659-64. Epub 2009 Mar 28. Link.
[2] Wohlgemuth R. Locks and Keys to Industrial Biotechnology. N Biotechnol. 2009 Apr;25(4):204-13. Epub 2009 Jan 21. Link.
[3] OECD Document on "Bio-based Economy". Link.
[4] Bruce E Dale. Sustainability Analyses of the Biobased Economy. Link.

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