Enzymes, small proteins in all living organisms used to initiate biochemical reactions, have become workhorses in the drive to build a bio-based economy. They can be harnessed to produce energy from agricultural waste, improve agricultural yields, and create greener household products.
“Nature is very smart in its use of resources,” said Peder Holk Nielsen, president and CEO of Novozymes, speaking at the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) 2014 in Copenhagen. “Biotechnology is an industrialised way of doing what nature does. You innovate to get more with less,” Neilson said.
That is an encouraging message as global leaders confront stressed supplies of energy, water and food, soaring population growth and rising carbon emissions. By 2030, industrial biotechnology can help save 1.25 billion tonnes of CO2 a year, said Nielsen, citing a recent report by World Wildlife Fund.
Industrial biotech is poised to play a larger and larger role in the global economy as governments and industry scramble to harness science to improve resource efficiency, Nielsen told the plenary session at ESOF entitled, ‘A bio-based society – the vision and how we get there’.
“Today we can create millions of unique new enzyme molecules a month,” said Nielsen, who holds a PhD and MSc in chemical engineering. “When I was doing research, we created 10 new molecules a year.”
The industrial biotech sector will grow to €295 billion in annual revenues by 2020, according to a recent forecast by the World Economic Forum. And by 2030, it is estimated 2.7 per cent of the global economy will be based on biotechnology – excluding biofuels – according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
€3.7 billion research partnership
Europe is keen to bolster its global competitiveness in bio-based industries as the cornerstone of a sustainable economy. Yesterday (July 9) the European Commission and Bio-based Industries Consortium (BIC) launched a €3.7 billion public-private partnership that will run for seven years. The first set of calls, also launched on 9 July, have an estimated budget of €50 million and will be split between research and innovation, including pilot demonstrations. Novozymes is one of 70 industrial members of the Commission’s Biobased Industries Joint Undertaking.
“We will consume X per cent more of everything by 2050. That will happen – the question is whether it will be sustainable? We have the ability to make significant improvements today,” said Nielsen. “The cost of DNA sequencing is coming down dramatically, and access to knowledge is exploding. That creates a fantastic amount of opportunity.”
Novozymes, which has been producing industrial enzymes since 1941, has garnered 48 per cent of the global market for enzymes. In 2013, it had revenues of €1.5 billion, up 5 per cent. Net profit for the year rose 9 per cent to €293 million, and Novozyme’s share price is up 19 per cent since January.
To drive innovation, the Danish biotech company pours 13-14 per cent of revenues into R&D annually and collaborates closely with customers like Proctor & Gamble to accelerate the development of new products, such as stain-removing enzymes that replace oil-based chemicals in laundry and dishwasher detergents, eliminating the need to wash at high temperatures, which in turn cuts electricity use and carbon emissions.
The average EU washing temperature has declined from 62 degrees in 1975 to 44 degrees in 2010, Nielsen said, falling roughly 1 degree a year. The next breakthrough will be detergents that can wash effectively at ambient temperature, he added. “Our goal is to get people washing at 15 degrees Celsius.”
Novozymes is also investing heavily in bio-agricultural technologies to produce fuel from the cellulose in agricultural wastes, such as wheat straw. “We will get there – we will get to the point where we have affordable biomass,” said Nielsen. “This is going to be a very strong technology when it comes to reducing carbon emissions from driving cars.”
But Nielsen warned that EU policymakers will need to mandate the use of such second-generation biofuels – as the US did ¬¬– to ensure market take-up.
“Americans built an industry that replaces 10 percent of gas consumption and saves half of the carbon emissions. They did that through a mandate system,” said Nielsen. “Unless you twist arms it won’t happen.”
The reason, he says, is the vested interest of the oil industry in maintaining a fossil-fuel driven economy. “I am calling out the energy companies as the enemy here – they don’t want this transition to happen – they want to delay it,” said Nielsen.
“The first thing we need to do is prove to the regulators that this is a robust technology. Second we need to excite them about the likelihood about this becoming competitive. A lot of research work that needs to go forward,” said Nielsen, noting that Europe’s public-private partnership on biobased industries will support research and large-scale trials to build the value chain. The EU will contribute €1 billion to the partnership with industry investing some €2.7 billion.
In October 2013, Novozymes inaugurated the world’s first commercial-scale advanced biofuels production plant in Northern Italy. The multi-feedstock cellulosic ethanol plant can handle agricultural waste from a variety of crops, including wheat straw and rice straw, as well as giant cane. The company is building five more plants that will start operations this year.
“The process will be cost competitive soon,” Nielsen said. “This is not about changing farm practice, it’s about taking waste left to rot on fields and converting it to sugars,” he said. In addition to greening the transport fuel sector, the growth of a biomass industry can bring jobs back to farming communities, he added.
Improving crop yields
Enzymes can also be tapped to boost agricultural output with microbes that help plants take up nutrients. “Soil is one big microbial flora. In any spoonful of soil there are 4,000 microorganisms,” said Nielsen. “You can get significant improvements in yields if you get the right microorganisms in and overdose it.
Novozymes has an alliance with Monsanto to explore the science of improving crop yields using microorganisms. “There is so much fantastic science that needs to be done here. We know very little about how microbes communicate with the roots of plants and why they thrive around the roots,” said Nielsen. “This is how science can change the world.”