At the end of September 2010, the founding contract for the Bioeconomy Science Center was signed. RWTH Aachen University, the Universities of Bonn and Düsseldorf and Forschungszentrum Jülich established a cross-institutional and interdisciplinary cooperation in basic and applied research for the transformation to a sustainable bioeconomy, which is still unique today. Ten years later, the BioSC has developed into a renowned center of excellence for bioeconomy research in Germany and Europe, from which numerous contributions to solutions have been developed through integrative research projects and where cross-disciplinary educational approaches have been implemented.
The concept of a „Knowledge-based Bio-Economy“ (KBBE) as a driver for a competitive and sustainable economy was first formulated by the European Commission in 2005. In 2007, experts from academia and industry evaluated the prospects for a knowledge-based bioeconomy in the so-called „Cologne Paper“. They pointed out, among other things, the considerable need for interdisciplinary research and education and the important role of society. At the end of 2007, the state of NRW then established a KBBE office with Dr. Dr. h.c. Christian Patermann, the former head of the Research Directorate at the European Commission and „father“ of the KBBE, which was to advise the state government in this „emerging field of research and innovation“.
In North Rhine-Westphalia, the importance of the knowledge-based bioeconomy was recognized early on by research institutions and universities, so that initial discussions began as early as 2005 on how a comprehensive concept could be implemented here. The idea of founding a competence center for bioeconomy research developed on the basis of scientific excellence, high synergy potential and cooperation in bioeconomy-relevant research fields that already existed between Forschungszentrum Jülich, the universities of Bonn and Düsseldorf and RWTH Aachen University. In the spirit of the „Cologne Paper“, these four partners developed a concept for the cross-disciplinary bundling of their competences.
In 2010, the founding contract for the Bioeconomy Science Center was signed - in the same year in which the German government adopted the National Research Strategy Bioeconomy 2030. In 2013, the federal government and the state of NRW concluded an agreement to jointly support the development of the BioSC for a period of at least ten years. Since 2013, the research association has been funded within the framework of the NRW strategy project BioSC.
Until 2016, the research program of the strategy project followed a „bottom up“ approach: BioSC members could apply for open-topic one- or two-year projects if those were interdisciplinary and supported by at least two of the four participating institutions. Through peer review procedures, a total of 41 projects were implemented in this first phase. Based on the results of the first phase, a thematic focus was then set from 2017. In six large multidisciplinary cooperation projects, the FocusLabs, up to ten working groups each worked on an integrative project over a period of three to four years. In addition, in the second phase, applications for projects lasting one to two years could still be submitted in order to address cross-FocusLab topics and new developments. Since 2013, the NRW strategy project BioSC has resulted in around 180 publications in scientific journals and numerous patents.
The research of the BioSC is characterized by a systemic approach that combines basic research and application. Only in this way can bio-based products and production processes be successfully established, which requires technological innovations and innovative infrastructures, but also transformations in consumer habits, business models and value chains. The BioSC thus creates economic, ecological and social solutions for the provision of food and feed as well as bio-based materials, chemicals and energy sources.
It is not possible to acknowledge the many approaches of the BioSC in a short text. Therefore, here are some example topics that have been worked on in the past 10 years - without prioritization and certainly not with the claim of completeness.
To establish biomass as a raw material substitute for crude oil, numerous biotechnological, chemical and process engineering methods have been developed. Processes have been established for biomass pulping that enable additional added value through the gentle separation of high-quality plant ingredients. On laboratory and pilot scale, plant cellulose, hemicellulose and pectin have been established as starting materials for the biotechnological production of bulk chemicals such as itaconic acid or pyruvate as well as biosurfactants. New microbial synthesis pathways for the production of high-value compounds, such as bioactive substances, were successfully designed and optimized. In various projects, contributions to biorefinery concepts have been developed that integrate the pulping of biomass of different quality and origin, its conversion into products and their separation and purification.
For the sustainable supply of biomass, for example, innovative and environmentally friendly concepts have been developed for the cultivation of perennial plants on nutrient-poor soils. For crop protection, new biological active ingredients were identified and a system for the sparing and targeted application of agrochemicals was developed. Projects for the recovery of nutrients such as phosphate and nitrate aimed at closing resource cycles.
By integrating socio-economic research approaches, the connection of technological innovations to markets, politics and society was established. In various ways, it has been investigated how the economic and social changes in the transition from a fossil-based to a bio-based economy can be managed and shaped in such a way that they are ecologically compatible, technically feasible and socially accepted.
In the context of numerous scientific events there was an intensive exchange with academia and industry. Young scientists were inspired to new approaches through excursions, workshops and PhD retreats which highlighted the diversity of bioeconomy. Since its foundation, the BioSC has also offered and implemented numerous information and dialogue formats for the public, for example in the context of science nights or citizens' forums.
Ten years after its foundation, the BioSC is on the point of entering the third funding phase of the NRW strategy project. Topics with high relevance for an integrated and sustainable bioeconomy will be continued and further developed in order to implement the BioSC's systemic perspective for bioeconomy research at regional, national and international level. In the meantime, the BioökonomieREVIER initiative has also developed from the scientific strength of the BioSC. It aims to develop the Rhenish mining district into a bioeconomy-based model region within the framework of structural change - building on the scientific results and with continued scientific input from the BioSC, in practical action of economy, ecology and social responsibility.