IN news that was music to every Scottish biotech company’s ears, earlier this month the Scottish Government set a legally binding target to end our country’s contribution to global warming by 2045, by achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.

This is exactly what’s needed to boost the country’s bio-economy. This new target will surely mean companies who contribute to reducing our carbon footprint will be rewarded – a shot in the arm for the biotech sector.

Reducing carbon emissions is at the very heart of what industrial biotechnology (IB) is about. Everything we do at the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC) is based on the need for a sustainable future.

Any time we can make a chemical, feedstock or fuel using IB, we are leaving fossil fuels in the ground. IB uses plant-based sources, and if you’re using plants as your main feedstock, you are capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

One example is a study looking at the economics and sustainability of reintroducing sugar beet crops to Fife. The sugar from these crops can be used for both food and other products – for example it could be converted to bioethanol for use in transport fuels. Currently, Scotland must import every litre of bioethanol it uses. However, if we could grow sugar beet successfully in Fife, with Grangemouth close by, the whole production cycle for this greener fuel could be carried out within a 50-mile radius.

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Polyethylene is the most common chemical we make across the world, accounting for around a third of the total plastics market. One hundred million tonnes are made every year and demand is still rising! Ethylene, the feedstock used to produce polyethylene, is currently produced in Grangemouth using fossil fuels. A company named Croda produces ethylene in the US which is 100% renewable and 100% plant-based using corn sugar. We’re not doing the same in Scotland yet – but it’s an opportunity that could materialise with the right supply chains from sugar beet.

Then there are a host of smaller opportunities within regular chemical manufacturing. One of our member companies, MiAlgae, uses algae to feed salmon using the co-products from Scotland’s whisky industry to grow omega 3-rich algae that can be fed to salmon. Not only is this a healthier way to feed the fish, it also has the potential to make the whisky industry carbon negative.

Another member company, Ingenza, is partnering with major leading chemical companies to genetically engineer organisms that can convert plant-derived sugar into molecules which can be made into high-quality materials, capturing carbon as they do so.

Scotland’s other big opportunity is in renewable energy – we are better positioned than any other European country in terms of wind power. Carbon dioxide is the lowest energy form of carbon, which means that if you want to do anything useful with it, you must put some energy back in. If you can use renewable energy to convert carbon dioxide into something useful, that’s ideal.

IBioIC member, Drochaid Research Services, is converting carbon dioxide and hydrogen into liquid fuels. This has massive potential. It may not be a direct example of biotech, but it all links up.

Our mission at IBioIC is to transition traditional fossil-fuel-based industries towards more sustainable sources. If you asked a chemist and a biotechnologist to come up with a way to make a new chemical product, the chemist will usually win because the status quo is faster, cheaper and built on 150 years of knowledge. However, the biotechnologist will get you something sustainable and potentially with improved performance. And thanks to the vision of the Scottish Government, sustainability will soon be as big a driver as time and money.

Ian Archer is a technical director at the IBioIC