From the start of phase 2 on, the development of the NRW Strategy Project BioSC is defined by scientific key topics. Four Focus Topic Areas set the frame for all funded activities.
Plants have a key position in the establishment of a sustainable bioeconomy. They must provide the basis for healthy nutrition for a growing world population and will also be needed as renewable raw material basis to replace fossil resources such as crude oil in the future. However, the areas globally available for agriculture can no longer be expanded considerably. The increase in plant biomass production must be realized on the same area and with the least possible environmental impact.
For these reasons, intelligent solutions are needed to increase crop yields while protecting the environment. This includes the efficient and economical use of water, nutrients and plant protection products, protection of soils, closing of nutrient cycles and the development of new concepts for plant protection. At the same time, post-harvest losses such as the rotting of foods must be reduced significantly and plants must be adapted to changing climate and environmental conditions through breeding.
Over the past 15 years, plants that, for example, can use water or nutrients more efficiently or are resistant to pathogens have frequently been bred using the methods of modern plant breeding. Precision farming uses sensors to distribute quantities of fertilizer, pesticides and water that are precisely adapted to the current need within the acreage. Soil scientists are investigating how the composition of microorganisms in the soil influences plant growth and are developing new soil protecting cultivation concepts together with farmers. Land requirements and usage competitions can be minimized by the development and combination of different cultivation systems and technologies for the simultaneous production of energy and plants on one area (agrophotovoltaics). The combination of different approaches and expertise is the key to efficient and environmentally friendly plant production.
The development of biorefinery concepts and systems in which the provision of biomass and its conversion into products are integrated represent a key element for the transformation from an oil-based economy to a bioeconomy. Different bio-based raw materials must be utilized for the process: plants specifically cultivated for energy or material use, which may have been improved for later use by breeding, aquatic plants, waste materials or side streams from agriculture, the food industry and forestry, as well as residual materials from the paper industry. When using energy or material plants, perennial plants might be preferred if these can provide appropriate yields on otherwise unused poor soils that are unsuitable for agricultural production of food.
A biorefinery must not only be able to process a broader and more variable range of feedstocks than conventional oil refineries.Rather, completely new processes and procedures must be developed. In established petrochemical processes, the feedstocks are transformed in organic solvents, often at high temperatures, whereas the components of biomass require conversion processes at low temperatures in electrolytic solvents. Biotechnological processes for the production of platform chemicals require large quantities of auxiliaries and water. In order to allow up-scaling to production scale, methods are needed for recycling of solvents, catalysts and process water within a biorefinery. For residual material from the processed biomass, such as minerals or organic residues, opportunities must be created for recycling into material cycles, such as agricultural fertilizer.
The production of chemicals and materials in a sustainable bioeconomy is marked by new process chains in which biocatalysis with microorganisms and enzymes plays an important role. Biogenic raw materials include a wide range of perennial biomass plants to agricultural waste streams. Increasingly, these are joined by non-biogenic carbon sources such as CO2 or municipal waste streams such as plastic waste. In order to cover this broad range of source materials, the conventional “one substrate – one product” concept must be further developed into flexible and modular “multi substrate – multi product” process chains in which chemocatalysis and biocatalysis must be combined.
Synthetic biology as the driving force for molecular biotechnology provides a variety of new concepts to meet these changing demands. One of the greatest challenges is to make the resulting production processes and products usable and competitive compared with existing oil-based processes. The greatest prospects for success are in the area of high-value compounds, some of which have new functionalities such as fine chemicals, natural substances or proteins. Since these classes of substances have complex synthesis pathways, modular multi-step processes are the most promising. In addition, considerable added value can be achieved in the use of side-streams of bioeconomic process chains if further valuable fine chemicals or pharmaceutically usable substances are obtained in addition to the main products.
The goal of an economically, ecologically and socially sustainable bioeconomy is to secure the prosperity of present and future generations within the planetaryboundaries. This will only be possible with comprehensive social and economic changes. New goods must be produced using new raw materials and processes, but this can succeed only if they are demanded and socially accepted. The transition from a fossil-based to bio-based economy will take place only with substantial changes in, for example, consumption patterns, value networks, business models, infrastructures and regulatory frameworks.
Technological and institutional innovations are key drivers of such transformation processes. However, they must be accompanied by the analysis of potential conflicts of goals such as nutrition versus material use of plants, by the analysis of the competitiveness of new products versus established oil-based alternatives and by investigations of the social acceptance of new technologies. Thus, transformation pathways can systematically be identified that are at the same time a) desirable from the sustainability perspective, b) possible from the techno-economic point of view and c) acceptable from the societal point of view.