The first Industrial Revolution, which occurred from the late 1700s to early 1800s, dramatically changed human life and lifestyles. Prior to the 1700s, most tasks were laboriously done in people’s homes, using hand tools or basic machines. As a result of Industrialization, specialized machines replaced hand tools and factories were born, replacing farming as the main form of work. Human lifestyle was improved as never before, and industries, such as coal, iron, railroads and textiles, presented a huge growth.
But curiosity drives knowledge, and a second Industrial Revolution took place during the early 1900s. This period resulted in the expansion of electricity, petroleum, chemical and steel industries, and was symbolized by the development of an efficient and cost-effective assembly line and mass production. The telephone, light bulb and automobile were some of the biggest inventions during such period. After two industrial revolutions, people’s lives got more comfortable and urban.
A third Industrial Revolution is now under way – manufacturing is going biological. Biocatalysis technologies are already employed in a large number of industrial sectors (food and beverage, energy, detergents, textiles, pharmaceutical, chemical), and are based on the use of biocatalysts.
Biocatalysts consist of single enzymes or whole cell systems, and are capable of converting an appropriate substrate into a useful and valuable product.
Industrial biocatalysis is older than you may think. Production of acetic acid and vitamin C for food industries are two of the oldest examples of biocatalyst application at industrial scale (since 1815 and 1935, respectively). Besides, recent advances in genetic engineering and systems biology, coupled to directed evolution technologies, are offering new possibilities to cell and enzyme factories, namely higher product yields and use of new feedstocks (e.g. industry waste products and non-food crops). It is now possible to change amino acids composition of enzymes and introducing / deleting cell genes or pathways to reach higher performance and production of new compounds. Making use of such progresses, interest and investment in biocatalysis industry is growing notably in EU. The following companies are just a few examples of those focused on biocatalysis technologies.
Green Biologics is a UK-based company founded in 2003 dedicated to the production of renewable chemicals and biofuels. Based on proprietary Clostridium fermentation platform, the company is able to convert a wide range of sustainable feedstocks into green chemicals, such as n-butanol, acetone and, through chemical synthesis, derivatives for downstream formulations.
Novozymes is a Denmark-based company founded in 2000 offering biosolutions for specific industries. As the world leader in bioinnovation, the company develops dedicated and efficient enzymes for agriculture, biopharma, food, pulp and paper, among other industries.
Like the previous industrial revolutions, this one promises to be disruptive. Unlike conventional industrial chemical processes, bioconversion technologies are environmentally-friendly and more sustainable. Besides, the use of renewable and low-cost feedstocks for the generation of a wide range of compounds is contributing to the development of a bioeconomy.
Bioeconomy will be next wave of economy, and aims for a low-carbon and energy-efficient society, based on the use of renewable resources. Bioeconomy will make us less dependent on fossil fuels, save the environment, promote economic growth, and create new jobs.
Will bioeconomy and biocatalysis industry change the world as we know it? Next decades promise be crucial to answer this question.