Industrial applications

Biotechnology has been applied in the preparation and preservation foodstuffs, beverages and animal feed for thousands of years. Globally, biotechnology also has a highly significant role in medicine nowadays and as a means to improve the properties of various plants. Biotechnology also has a fourth significant area of application: utilisation in the manufacture of various industrial products. It is from this that the term “industrial biotechnology” is derived.

Industrial biotechnology utilises in its production processes various micro-organisms (mainly bacteria, yeasts and moulds) or enzymes produced with them. Various commercial products such as chemicals, food additives, proteins, plastics and fuels are mainly manufactured through these processes. Many medical compounds such as antibiotics, vaccines and antibodies are also produced by utilising the same processes and know-how. Below is an excellent example of the interface between different applications: compounds applied in medical applications are produced by means of processes recognisable from industrial biotechnology.

Millions of tonnes of industrial biotechnology products a year are manufactured in large facilities. Familiar examples of everyday mass-produced products are ethanol (both for technical as well as fuel and beverage use), glutamine and citric acid used as food additives and enzymes for washing powders and “stone washing” of jeans. In recent years, a number of biotechnologically produced so-called bio-plastics have also been made available on the market. These can be used to manufacture, for example, disposable containers and plastic components for cars.

Solutions and alternatives to crude-oil-based industry and energy production based thereon are being sought from biotechnology. This involves, among other things, the potential use of algae in the manufacture of transport fuels, as well as manufacturing of the bio-plastics referred to above. Steps forward have been achieved through new enzyme applications and the modification of the metabolism of production microbes. Enzymes as well as other industrial biotechnology products are currently manufactured mainly in genetically modified organisms, in optimised and controlled production processes. Biotechnological production processes are often more environmentally friendly than, for example, chemical industry processes.

The combined annual turnover of the global industry based on industrial biotechnology is around EUR 10 billion. Investments targeted at the sector have been increasing in recent years. Finland has strong traditions in the field, and is still one of the leading producers of industrial enzymes. The Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT), located in Otaniemi, Espoo, is one of industry’s leading research institutes in Europe. In terms of number of industrial biotechnology facilities, the largest application is wastewater treatment, in conjunction with which it is also possible to produce biogas.

The development of industrial biotechnology is driven by a number of global issues, such as the challenges of sustainable development, emissions targets and the high price of crude oil. The strong development of technologies − such as gene technology, measurement methods and computer software that analyses measurement results − enables the development of completely new process solutions based on industrial biotechnology.

Publications of the Advisory Board on Biotechnology:

Seminar: Biotechnology in the service of citizens − What do you hope from it in the future? (2007)
Seminar: What is industrial biotechnology? (2006)