VEGA News Item

Turning Biomass and Waste into Manufacturing Commodities - 23/01/2009
The British Government has recognized in its Manufacturing Strategy for 2008 that "the UK can be a world leader in manufacturing solutions for a low carbon economy"
1. The British Government has recognized in its Manufacturing Strategy for 2008 that "the UK can be a world leader in manufacturing solutions for a low carbon economy", with claims that the NNFCC make in Newsletter, Issue 12 (which fails to reveal what the abbreviation stands for; however, it is based at the Biocentre, York Science Park Ltd, Innovation Way, Heslington, York YO10 5DG, Phone 01904 435182, Email: enquiries@nnfcc.co.uk, www.nnfcc.co.uk).

2. An integrated Low Carbon Industrial Strategy will be produced this year "to help achieve the vision of placing UK manufacturing at the forefront of the new low carbon revolution. "To support this, the NNFCC will continue to promote the opportunities for renewable raw materials in the chemical sector to industry, agriculture, and the public. These aims and research ally with VEGA's interests in thrifty applications and innovations of biotechnology in the production of foods, enhancing the value of "wastes", generation of power, and manufacture of household goods and pharmaceuticals. (However, with these developments follow the demands for REACH testing of the safety of novel processes and products, with the consequences of experimentation on animals) The number of such scientific procedures is set to rise as advances in the knowledge of the rat's genome look likely to allow "humanization", eg by GM, of this species in the manner applied for some years now to the mouse; however, the novel "breeds" of rats will yield closer likenesses, to humans and their genotypes than have been achieved with altered mice. Scientists are already seeking organisms for these tests "lower" down the evolutionary chain, such as fish, yeasts, and bacteria, but redoubled applications of the precautionary principles and guestimates will have to be resorted to in reducing recourse to cruelly uncertain tests.

3. The newsletter states: "Rarely can a bulk chemical be simply extracted from plant material as you would an essential oil, so the biomass has to be processed. It might undergo chemical processing such as turning vegetable oil into a surfactant, or biological processing, such as fermentation of sugar to produce ethanol and citric acid. Globally, just over 8 million tonnes of chemicals are produced by fermentation. A huge range of chemicals can now be made by this route because of advances in biotechnology".

4. The newsletter continues: " The living cell is a masterful industrial chemist. From producing a simple sugar to a complex steroid, life has a catalyst for the reaction. What's more, the reactions can occur under mild conditions - think of the enzymes in biological washing powder which don't require harsh solvents or high temperatures to clean your laundry. Living cells like moulds, yeasts or bacteria, as well as enzymes extracted from cells, can be used to produce chemicals from biomass. Cells can be used as they are, or tailored by transformation with genes from other organisms. For example, insulin can be made by GM Ecoli. However, using a biological process is not always simple: some reactions stop when only a small amount of product has been made; some catalysts are delicate and must be constantly replenished; other reactions may not produce precisely what we want".

Promise in Biotech

5. The NNFCC's summary describes "many opportunities in biotechnology", such as:

o Reduction of the costs, so that "cheaper processes need to be developed to improve the competitiveness of biobased chemicals"

o At present many biobased chemicals are being made by fermenting sugar and starch. In the future lignocellulosic material could also be used, "which would reduce the need for food crops and enable us to get more from each hectare of land by using the whole plant. However, lignocellulose is a recalcitrant material. To plant scientists, this stability is part of plants' brilliance, as it helps them to resist herbivores and pathogens, but to industrial biochemists it is an irritating impediment to efficient fermentation". Development of processes to digest lignocellulose on an industrial scale is very important (and extends their significance beyond their applications in food products and pharmaceuticals offering supposed benefits as prebiotics and probiotics).

o Biomass itself is also the subject of research. Plant breeding can be used "to produce crops that are better industrial feedstocks. It is even possible to modify plants to produce a bioplastic in their leaves".

6. The newsletter assesses environmental messages, land use and Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), which is likely to allude to sustainability. It cites 1, 3-propanediol (PDO) as a relevant example. The compound is "traditionally made from fossil-derived ethylene oxide or propylene. Du Pont and Tate and Lyle developed a process to produce PDO from corn (maize) using a specially-designed microbe". The Du Pont Bio-PDO plant in Tennessee has a capacity of 45 million kg a year, demonstrating that the switch to biomass feedstock will not make chemicals into a cottage industry, it will continue at much the same size as now to maximize economies of scale. Bio-based PDO

has diverse applications - personal care products, cosmetics, de-icer, and it can be polymerized to make plastic, fabric and carpets.

7. An illustrated montage adds further examples of significant bioconversions

o Bioethylene to milk containers and flexible tubing
o Fumaric or succinic acid to Spandex, medicines, and de-icer
o Renewable polymers (eg PLA) to make film for packing fresh and fragile salads
o Acrylic acid, converted into nappies and paints
o Methylmethacrylate and Polyhydroxyalkanoates used for manufacture of orthopaedic pins and LCD TV's.

Dumping Landfill and Power

8. We can think of other important applications with or without microbiology, eg conversions of "waste" products into plastic furnishing of car interiors, or diversion of poultry litter from dumping into landfill to be turned into electric power. Applications of engineering and physical principles underlie conversions of bakery wastes into power and fertilizer, with thin emissions of steam as the only escaping vapour. Dehydration (or dewatering) can lower costs of transport and avoidable bulk (eg of liquid skimmed milk converted into a dry powder suitable for re-constituting on site with local water). Similarly, liquids such as beers, brewed with specially invented yeasts may travel at alcohol concentrations up to wine levels, ready to be "let down" with local water near the point of consumption; other beverages, such as fruit juices, may be treated similarly. Acute observers and monitors will bear in mind the possibly-overlooked consequences in such procedures on mineral content, notably of fluoride.


9. Carbon footprinting, recycling, and conservation have generated scores of claims and statistics, some of questionable quality, because they are not rehearsed without the reservations that accompanied their original utterance. We have seen some of these statements unadorned with the qualifications that were attached to them in our original introductions in 1976 to the Green Plans. Many of the issues in today's "green" debates on food, fuel, and natural resources and the environment are common, if under different names, to the challenges prompted in the 1970,s by global supplies of crops and foods running short and with outright famine and increasing human and farm livestock populations. Many, if not most of the statistics were mainly appropriate for conditions in North America and inapplicable to conditions for Northern Europe, let alone for Northern England; nor even for the dairy farmers in the southwest of the country, as apposed to areas of East Anglia where the Barley Barons were having difficulties disposing of straw and attracting environmentalist's displeasure with relentless rotations ("3 years in barley and then one in the Bahamas) in winter-and even autumn-sown crops, showing their faces to the sun even before spring had sprung).

10. The campaign for Real Bread and the motto Grow Food, not feed harked back to global considerations of famines and conditions just after WW2, when the UK was on a very-low meat diet and coping with the withdrawal of Marshall Aid from the USA and left bankrupt. (The American debt was finally cleared off only a few years ago). CAMREB was an effort in 1976 to clarify these aspects of the Green Plan to consumers in general and the campaigners we hoped to enlist, using contemporaneous topics and banking on a success to rate with CAMRA's with beers.

11. Organic and environmental principles attracted some people, especially with reference to reliance during WW2 on the dairy cow, to concepts of the naturalness of the British mixed farm, notwithstanding the practices of artificial insemination, disposals of bobby-calves, and the risks of TB, need for pasteurization, and prevalence of mastitis. Nonetheless, the self-sufficiency of the dairy/beef/veal farm growing fodder crops and grass for all purposes and with livestock returning to the soil pesticide-free urine and feces as fertilizer and yielding milk sold locally, the idyll of the sustainable unit with simple needs and few food (and feed) miles gained adherents. Stockless farming did not accord with such concepts, although a few of the more thoughtful Soil Association farmers descried fallacies and they abandoned the system for the less objectionable extensive forms of beef production. Intensification of the dairy/beef/veal methods and increases in food-borne diseases, especially BSE latterly, and changes in the CAP reduced the attractions of dairying and strained the efforts of organic farmers to meet standards becoming more and more elusive. Dairy-free has become established as a description in vocabulary of sustainability and the trend has been upheld by advances in the dairy of plant-based milks and dairy-produce relieving the cow, calf, and dairy-farmer of unremitting demands on their welfare.

12. VEGA has therefore been involved in the research and development of these alternatives, some of which had been started at the end of WW2 for populations, in Africa particularly, with lactose-intolerance or other aversions to the milky way with traditions founded on the exploitation of herbivores. NNFCC's technologies carry over to progress towards dairy-free, meat-free, and cruelty-free agronomies, now with support from agencies with common purposes but different applications.

13. Now the organic movement, including the Soil Association, faces the embarrassment of pleading with the Government to relax or abandon stipulations that it had itself vaunted as exemplification of its sustainability and adherence to the age-old practices of good husbandry. In its ignominy it has had to admit that its requirements for organic feedstuffs to maintain the intensified yields it has been demanding of its cows cannot suffice. The organic movement has therefore come a resounding cropper by ignoring the fundamentals in growing food, not feed. The quest for unexceptionable alternatives grows ever more urgent.


Registered Charity No. 1045293
© VEGA - 2008