Can the Bioeconomy Save the World?
More and more, organic substances are replacing fossil resources. Plant-based raw materials are rendering petroleum redundant in plastic production processes, while bacteria and enzymes are now being used increasingly in industrial applications. Can we prevent environmental disaster with green materials?11 Apr 2016
For centuries, the economic dogma has remained the same: higher, faster, further. Bio-economists are challenging this credo with a whole new concept. They call for a recycling-based economy following nature's example, replacing fossil fuels with renewable raw materials and making the industrial sector more efficient.
Hopes could not be higher: The bioeconomy is expected to solve humanity’s global challenges. For example, feeding growing populations, freeing our energy supply from its fossil fuel-dependency and stopping climate change. The successes of recent years, in particular in materials science, show that these goals are less utopian than they might seem.
Bioeconomy creates perspectives and markets
14 million tons of packaging is produced in Germany alone each year, almost 40 percent of which is made of plastic. We consume 1.8 million tons of non-durable plastic products like films or shopping bags. However, there is an alternative: starch-based plastics and biodegradable polylactides. While the green materials are more expensive than conventional ones, especially when petroleum is cheap, their market share keeps on growing.
The main reason is consumers’ growing environmental awareness. People who buy organic produce generally want it to come in biodegradable packaging. Experts estimate the half of the six million tons of disposable packaging used in Europe could be replaced by green materials. By 2021, the global market could grow to roughly 5.8 billion US dollars, over three times the figure for 2014.
Environmental protection starts small
Micro-organisms play an increasingly important role in industrial processes of all types, and are also a key to growing the green economy. Bacteria and fungi in particular make a valuable contribution to clean product manufacturing. They can be used to produce enzymes that trigger environmentally friendly chemical reactions.
Applications for enzymes have grown exponentially in line with advances in biotechnology, genetic engineering, genetics and molecular biology. Today, they are no longer only found in detergents and cleaning agents, toothpastes or shampoos. Enzymes also help harvest biofuels and make production processes more sustainable. Take silicates for example: Until now, it took glass furnaces running at a temperature of 1,800 degrees Celsius to produce the mineral. Then, researchers discovered the secret of marine sponges, as nature does the same thing in the cold ocean waters with the silicatein enzyme.
Tackling the challenge together
If there is one thing all experts agree on, it’s that the structural transition to a sustainable economy can only succeed if researchers, raw material producers, industrial users and society as a whole communicate and find solutions together. The green economy cannot save the world on its own – only we can.
Learn what is already possible today and what the future of research in the bioeconomy holds at HANNOVER MESSE 2016 – for example at the Global Material Innovations Showcase. Discuss ideas, find out about the most interesting projects and meet new people at leading trade fair Research & Technology and many special events, for example on Organic Electronics.
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