What is a biobased economy?

In a nutshell

The bio-based economy uses renewable resources for industrial purposes. This emerging economy relies on the use of organic material (e.g. plants, waste) as renewable raw material for the production of new or existing products. Currently, the bio-based economy is mostly known due to its contributions in paper and cardboard production, furniture, energy and bulk chemicals market. These include fuels (ethanol, biodiesel), electricity (e.g. burning of biomass, biogas) and heat (eg wood pellets), or plastics (eg PLA, PE or starch-based) and are currently produced on a commercial scale. However, other lower volume markets connected with the bio-based economy include detergents, materials, fragrances, enzymes, cosmetics, food/feed ingredients, non-bulk chemicals, pharma and are generally less developed.

The use of biomass for the energy and bulk chemicals market has created tensions with food security due to the use of food crops and agricultural land for industrial purposes and therefore induced land use change. Impact on food prices are estimated relatively mild, between 1-5% increase. A sustainable EU bio-economy, therefore, reconciles food security (food/feed economy) with the sustainable use of renewable resources for industrial purposes (bio-based economy). This principle leads to new challenges and hurdles to be tackled, but also new opportunities. More emphasis is put on agri-residues, food waste, waste oils or any organic waste and on crops that can grow on marginal land as sustainable source of biomass to produce bulk bio-based products as these do not compete with food production or do not induce land change (2nd generation biomass) to valuable chemicals and materials. The new EU energy directive is an example of this as it states that biofuel produced from second generation biomass counts double towards the 10% threshold of biofuel in transport fuel. A sustainable bio-based economy hwoever contributes also to a circular economy as it turns organic waste into a useful resource allowing to build new end-of-life options into material supply chains. In addition, a sustainable bio-based economy takes into account circularity at the designing stage of products.
While the current fossil economy benefits from over a century of technical development and optimal refinery the bio-based economy is only just starting to realise its full potential and optimal biorefinery. Therefore, Bio-Based Industries Joint Undertaking (PPP between EC and the Bio-based industries Consortium) agreed on allocating € 3.7 billion (€ 975 million from the EC) to the bio-based economy from 2014-2024 with an important focus on funding demo and flagship projects realizing new production facilities along 5 general new value chains including integrated biorefineries, use of forest, agro and food residues and lignocellulose.

Inter- and multidisplinary

The bio-based economy is very cross-sectoral as links are made between at least 19 industrial sectors that could barely be linked with each other before. There is a strong link with the primary sector and forestry sector producing biomass. Feedstocks include starch or sucrose containing crops (wheat, potato, corn, sugar beet, sugar cane), lignocellulose material (straw, sugar cane bagasse, sugar beet pulp, forest residues), dedicated crops (rape seed, Miscanthus, flax, hemp), waste oils (used cooking oil) or food waste. Conversion technologies used are a combination of biochemistry, biotechnology, (catalytic) chemistry, extraction, thermal processes and (bio)chemical processing technology. The most important key enabling technology (KET) triggering these new developments is Industrial Biotechnology. Driven by large cost reductions in DNA sequencing and gene synthesis new synthetic biology approaches promise to transform the capabilities of the biotechnology industry in the coming decades. At the end-product side the bio-based economy contributes to energy, fuels, plastics, detergents, enzymes, fragrances, textiles, cosmetics, 3D printing and medical implantates, building materials, decorative materials,…

Benefits

The EU widely recognizes the importance of the biobased economy as key element for smart and green growth in Europe in order to cope with an increasing global population, depletion of resources, increasing environmental pressure and climate change (EU Strategy for innovating for sustainable growth: A bio-economy for Europe).

  • Decreased dependence and replacement of fossil resources and oil-producing countries: Bio-based technologies enable to replace fossil resources by biomass for fuel, electricity, bulk chemicals and plastics. Biomass used originates from a larger variety of countries, including the EU.
  • Decreased Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions (CO2, CH4): Technologies based on fossil resources emit ‘black’ CO2: it has been stored millions years ago and is released through burning adding up to the total CO2 concentration in the air. Bio-based processes emit ‘green’ CO2. This means that no net CO2 is emitted: the amount of emitted CO2 balances the amount of CO2 taken up by the biomass to grow. Large impacts are expected by implementing biofuels, bioelectricity and bioplastics, and by implementation of energy efficient technologies such as fermentation and enzymatic catalysis. Life Cycle Assessment and energy efficiency support the analysis of its environmental impact.
  • Growth, jobs and reindustrialization in EU countries: Bio-based technologies use feedstocks which are available in the EU and require new production facilities (biorefineries), as they differ substantially from classic (oil-based) refineries. This enables the creation of jobs and a production industry, and thus economic welfare in the EU.

Documents/links

Roadmaps for industrial biotechnology

Hurdles and needs for SMEs innovating in the bio-based economy

Bio-Based Industries Joint Undertaking

The EU Bioeconomy Observatory

The European Commission webpage on bioeconomy

Everyday life bio-based consumer goods in a bio-economy appartement

Bio Base Europe Pilot Plant for upscaling Industrial Biotechnology processes to industrial scale