The recent surge in government and corporate environmental and sustainability commitments has brought with it a resurgence of attention to converting biological components that are considered waste into energy and other materials. Tomorrow the Wisconsin Energy Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is holding a virtual event on advancing the state’s bioeconomy in rural areas.
I spoke with Mary Blanchard, WEI’s associate director, who will kick off the discussion during the event. After today’s headlines, see her thoughts on the growing importance of the bioeconomy and how it influences technology development in the region.
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Now, back to the bioeconomy. Blanchard says WEI’s virtual event tomorrow is open to the public and will appeal to a wide variety of audiences, from farmers to government agencies to private technology developers. “There is an active community of people interested in innovation and what might be possible in the future,” she said.
Here is the rest of our Q&A:
Q: Explain what you mean by “bioeconomy” and why it is important.
A: The bioeconomy encompasses the production of renewable materials, such as agricultural, forestry, and other purpose-grown and waste biomass, and also the use of biotechnology to convert these resources into fuels, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, medicines, and everyday materials.
It has been a key driver of economic activity in Wisconsin and throughout the Midwest. In Wisconsin alone, farms and agricultural businesses contributed $105 billion to the economy and represented nearly 440,000 jobs in 2017. If we can find new uses for these materials through innovative technologies, we can create jobs, open new markets, and provide new revenue streams for farmers and other producers.
Q: You led into my next question: Why is your virtual event tomorrow focusing on rural areas?
A: The bioeconomy uses renewable biological resources to grow or make products, so its origins are rural. Its future remains linked to rural areas because that’s where the raw materials are located.
Transporting them beyond that radius is cost-prohibitive. Many envision a future where scalable biobased production facilities are distributed throughout rural regions, creating agile and resilient supply chains that convert renewable resources into chemicals and other products. This could increase the value of those resources and create jobs that bolster rural communities and promote statewide rural economic development.
Q: Are these technologies already widely in place in rural Wisconsin communities?
A: Right now, the traditional bioeconomy is quite extensive. That includes agriculture, milk and dairy products, food and beverage, forestry and wood products, paper and pulping, ethanol, and biofuels made from soybeans.
What we’re seeing is that there’s growth in enabling technologies through biotechnology, genomics, synthetic biology, new designer molecules, and other tools that can help convert these materials into new and different products. There could now be substitutes in products like plastic materials that are coming from biobased sources and might have better properties and be biodegradable. … New, never-before-seen materials could be enabled through these technologies — hydrocarbon fuels, pharmaceuticals, medicines — so there’s an opportunity to move into whole new areas.
In Wisconsin, there is a biotech sector that has been focused on biohealth. The pharmaceuticals and new types of therapies in medicines have already gained a really strong foothold here, but we also see the opportunity to move into other types of materials — more industrial biomanufacturing.
Q: Could you give examples of future potential for industrial biotechnology?
A: At the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, located at UW-Madison, there is work on lignin, which is a waste biomass at paper and pulping mills. It’s a complex material and hard to break down, so they separate it and burn it for heat. There is work on converting it to new products. A researcher found out how to make acetaminophen, which is essentially Tylenol, coming from lignin instead of coming from fossil fuels. That’s a whole new market that could come from waste biomass and could add value to a paper or pulping mill. If you can make something from lignin that would benefit the mills because it’s 30% of the material they deal with every day.
And different types of plastic precursors could offer opportunity for Wisconsin’s plastic converter industry. There could be new opportunities for Wisconsin’s manufacturing and automation sectors.
Q: Are most of these technologies coming from research institutions or the private sector?
A: It’s really a combination. The federal government sees the opportunity and they’ve had events in the past year focused on the bioeconomy and how we realize its fullest potential. In their supporting of research, they’re looking to fund the transition of making some of these innovations manufacturable. It’s speeding the process to commercialization. There’s a lot of interest from the U.S. government from the research part, but there are also many industries springing up. … Many of those same technologies could be used as a springboard to more bioindustrial manufacturing, so there is a lot of private sector activity.
Q: I grew up in Wisconsin and went to UW-Madison and understand the importance of the state’s dairy industry. How could this sector also play into the bioeconomy?
A: Tomorrow we’ll have people talking about the current landscape for Wisconsin’s farmers. … I have talked to producers of dairy products, like cheese, who have waste streams they would love to find a use for that could add value. Right now they have to pay to dispose of these waste streams.
There is also research focused on what we can do with manure. … Novel technologies and systems could enable the conversion of excess manure into valuable products that could keep excess nutrients off the landscape and out of our waterways. That would also be a way to reduce algal blooms.
There really is a tremendous opportunity for the state of Wisconsin. It’s estimated that homegrown biomass and renewable waste is more than 12 million metric tons per year that could be available for these purposes. The opportunities to convert them to fuels, chemicals, and everyday materials mean we could keep in the state much of the nearly $15 billion we now spend on fossil fuel imports, and we could help our industries become greater exporters of products.
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