Industrial biotechnology (IB) is the use of biological resources (including plant, algae, marine life, fungi and micro-organisms) for producing and processing of materials, chemicals and energy. Such research into the sustainable production and conversion of biological raw materials for use as sources of renewable energy, materials and chemicals can provide alternatives for diminishing fossil resources and drive the growth of the knowledge based bio-economy (KBBE). The aim of the KBBE is to address the demand for sustainable supplies of materials, fuels and food through biological means. Such research uses bioscience as a means to reconcile environmental and economic sustainability.
Synthetic Biology is an emerging interdisciplinary area that has the potential to be a key 21st century driver of wealth creation, while benefiting society through the design and re-design of biological parts, devices and systems with applications in bioremediation, fuel production, food security and threat detection. Imperial hosts the EPSRC funded Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation and is taking a national leadership role in this field.
Research on biorenewables (biofuels/bioenergy and chemicals and materials from biomass) addresses the science and engineering that will create sustainable, plant based liquid fuels and chemical feedstocks industries.
Reduced availability of fossil fuels and worldwide increase in energy demand have led to an active search for the next generation of fuels and materials derived from renewable resources. The primary aim of research in biorenewables is to discover sustainable routes to producing everyday products (materials, chemicals and fuels) from renewable resources. This concept is typically referred to as a ‘biorefinery’ for its similarity to the petroleum refinery. Renewable resources (“biomass” - plant matter, waste) can be converted into fuels and chemicals using a variety of cutting-edge biotechnologies. In this manner, biorenewables aim to provide alternative, natural sources for products that do not contribute to global climate change or compete with food resources.
The products from renewable resources cover the entire breadth of industry. For example, biofuels (bioethanol, biodiesel) are already used for transport. Bio-composites made from materials such as cellulose are used as structural materials. Renewable polymers (polylactic acid) are used for packaging. All of these products are derived from renewable plant materials (cellulose, lignin, triglycerides).
Research along this theme at Imperial cuts across the several disciplines, bringing together researchers from Life Sciences (plant science, plant genetics), Chemistry (biopolymers, biomass conversions), Materials Science (biocomposites), Engineering (biofuel synthesis) and the Centre for Environmental Policy. Only by exploiting this diverse set of expertise can we alter the mode of operation of the energy, chemicals and materials industries.