Prof. Ulrich Schurr is convinced that the future belongs to biology. Together with other scientists, he explains the complex principles of a bio-based recycling economy in the book “Bioökonomie für Einsteiger” (“bioeconomy for beginners”) by Joachim Pietzsch.
For seven years, more than 1,200 scientists from the universities of Bonn and Düsseldorf, RWTH Aachen University, and Forschungszentrum Jülich have been working together within the scope of the Bioeconomy Science Center (BioSC). Prof. Ulrich Schurr, spokesman for the managing directors of BioSC and director at Jülich’s Institute of Bio- and Geosciences (IBG-2), explains what role bioeconomic research today plays at regional and international level.
Prof. Schurr, what has the research alliance achieved in the past seven years?
We succeeded in establishing a well-connected community of researchers who together advance research issues that cannot be dealt with by one scientific discipline on its own. At the time of the BioSC’s launch, we expressly funded projects in which at least two research fields had to collaborate. For example, we utilize unused biomass from tomato plants to obtain useful materials for special chemicals in the food, feed, and chemical industries.
Image above: Prof. Ulrich Schurr is convinced that the future belongs to biology. Together with other scientists, he explains the complex principles of a bio-based recycling economy in the book “Bioökonomie für Einsteiger” (“bioeconomy for beginners”) by Joachim Pietzsch.
How exactly is this done?
First, the desired molecules need to be dissolved out of the plants. We require adapted process engineering as well as special enzymes that can break down plant biomass – but in a way that preserves and enriches the useful materials. This requires the competences of different disciplines.
Plant researchers know the structure of the cell walls of various plants. Agricultural scientists can tell us about the influence of cultivation methods on the plant structure and crop yield. Microbiologists develop specifically adapted bacterial strains which produce the desired enzymes or directly decompose the biomass. Engineers develop innovative processing technologies for the efficient extraction and processing of the biomass.
What topics will be in focus over the coming years?
Four main themes have emerged from the 42 projects concluded so far: the first comprises issues concerning plants. This includes how plants can be protected from diseases by means of new biotechnological methods, or how they can better withstand drought, nutrient stress, or heat. The second major task is to develop biotechnological processes in a modular manner so that we end up with a toolbox that allows us to create a multitude of different products. The third topic concerns the production of high-quality bio-based products in biorefineries, where biomass must be used efficiently, novel products developed, and sustainable material cycles established – both within biorefineries and in collaboration with agricultural production. And the fourth topic is strategic implementation: economy, politics, and society must help support the bioeconomy.
Can you give us examples of what you are already working on?
We are investigating the sustainable use of the biomass of perennial plants such as various malva plants, which return very good yields even in poor soils. Components such as sugar, cellulose, and lignin can be obtained from these plants and used to produce valuable products such as biosurfactants. Surfactants are not only found in detergents but also in food additives and printing ink. The advantage of biosurfactants over the crude-oil-based surfactants used today is that they are biodegradable and less toxic. Simultaneously, we are working on a biorefinery process which can be used to obtain such biosurfactants. And we are looking for plant-based natural materials which may serve as the source of bioactive substances such as agrochemicals and pharmaceuticals.
What significance does the bioeconomy have in Germany and internationally?
Many experts predict that bio-based products and services will become the main drivers of future economic and social development, and that therefore the century of biology is dawning. The German Federal Government is providing roughly € 2 billion in research funding as part of the National Research Strategy BioEconomy 2030. Within BioSC, which is supported by the state government of North Rhine-Westphalia, five “FocusLabs” are currently being established at an investment of almost € 12 million. These FocusLabs cover the entire value chain of the bioeconomy. Renewable raw materials are increasingly used even in German industry. Globally, 48 nations have developed their own bioeconomy strategies. All of these countries are concerned with a tailor-made solution specific to their region.
Why does every region require its own solution?
Every region has different conditions – both economic and scientific but also with regard to soils, land use, and natural resources. Brazil, for example, has large areas which permit sugar cane and soy to be mass produced, but also has an enormous variety of plants in the Amazon basin which could serve as a source of novel plant materials or “ideas from nature”. Therefore, Brazil requires several strategies: state-of-the-art biorefinery concepts for the use of large amounts of biomass, but also comprehensive protection of and intensive research on the rainforest.
How long will it take for the bioeconomy to become established?
Some fields require immediate implementation, and this is very much a possibility. Taking crop failures and food scarcity as an example, it is not only climate change that is a problem: forty percent of what we produce is discarded unnecessarily – either on the field or later during processing, or by the consumer. The bioeconomy is also about avoiding this type of waste and using resources in a smart manner. The path to a bio-based economy, embedded in other sustainable types of economy, will take longer in some fields than in others. It will depend on what the aim is – do we want foodstuffs, or bio-based materials, or energy to be produced from renewable raw materials? The bioeconomy will establish itself quickly wherever it is competitive and produces better results or products that cannot be produced using fossil raw materials.
This interview was conducted by Brigitte Stahl-Busse.
Images: Forschungszentrum Jülich/Wilhelm-Peter Schneider