Contents - Previous - Next
This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at http://unu.edu
Market penetration by biotechnology
The processing of plant matter into final industrial products or consumer products is potentially much less environmentally burdensome than the processing of fossil fuels. The latter requires additional chemicals, resulting in a serious disposal problem. In particular, the pyrolysis process applied to plant materials generates no harmful wastes.
A decade age, virtually the only plant-matter-derived products on the market were adhesives and lubricating oils and a handful of intermediate chemicals. Today, plant-derived products compete in just about every major product category. They enter the market by displacing some petroleum-derived product in a portion of its market, and then gradually increase their market share. This is outlined in more detail in table 3.6. Fourteen product categories represent over 90 million of the 108 million metric ton (m.t.) commodity petrochemical market. In all cases, the prices of competitive big-products have dropped since 1985; for example, in the case of inks this drop was over 30 per cent.
Admittedly, most plant-derived consumer products are not yet competitive with their petrochemical counterparts. But the price premium for plant-derived products has dramatically diminished. Even when their costs are higher, plant-based products are gaining market share as a result of a combination of "green" consumerism and government regulation. A number of plant-based products have established their reliability and quality, not to mention environmental value. The cost of big-products should continue to drop and their market share should continue to expand. As table 3.6 reveals, the amount of these eco-products was projected to increase by over 5 million tons by 1996. This would almost double the amount of plant matter used for industrial purposes from the 1990 level. Detergents and plastics account for one-third of the projected market expansion.
Table 3.6 Near-term potential in the United States for plant-matter-based industrial products
|Industrial product||Current production (million m.t. per year)||Derived from plants (%)||
|Reduction in cost of plant based products (%)||Projected increase in plant-based products by 1996 ('000 m.t.)|
Data sources: Chemical Marketing Reporter, Chemical & Engineering News; US Industrial Outlook, US Department of Commerce.
For example, inks based on soya oil first entered the US market in 1987. By 1991, 50 per cent of the 9,100 magazines and 75 per cent of daily newspapers were printed with soy-based ink. Aside from price, the key obstacle to the introduction of inks based on vegetable oils has been their slow drying time, which poses fewer problems in newspaper printing but more in magazine printing. This fact constitutes a significant technical challenge.
The interplay of public regulation, consumer sophistication, and private entrepreneurship has brought "biologicals" produced from renewable raw material into almost every major product category. Much larger markets can be achieved through concerted marketing and commercialization. Spurred by the surplus of agricultural crops, governments and some trade associations have targeted new market developments, focusing on those new markets as alternative crops that impact directly on the consumption of fossil fuels. Currently, the best return to biomass is available by displacing petroleum from high value specialty chemical markets. These markets tend to be very small except for half a dozen chemicals. About 90 per cent of all petroleum products are presently used as fuels, the fuel market is the most interesting long-term prospect.
Active research continues to develop processes for the conversion of lignocellulose to ethanol. Although potential margins in this area appear to be greater than in starch-based ethanol conversion, they are realized only if markets can be found for carbon by-products such as lignin or furfural. Unfortunately, given the disparity between fuel requirements and chemical markets, these by-products would saturate existing chemical markets even at relatively modest levels of ethanol production.
More than 20 oilseed crops are grown in the United States, with soybean dominating. About 1 million tons of vegetable oil are used as feedstock's for industrial products such as plastics, surfactants, adhesives, and lubricants, with prices varying from 32 cents per kg for sunflower oil to almost US$10/kg for jojoba oil. Table 3.7 summarizes the situation of oil-crop raw materials for fuels and industrial products manufactured in the United States (USOTA 1992; Robbelen et al. 1991).
Table 3.7 Yields and prices of potential and conventional oil-crop raw materials used for fuel and industrial production in the United States
Crop yield (m.t./ha)
Oil yield (m.t./ha)
Oil price (US$/kg)
Important product categories
|Bladderpod||10.0||3.9||-||Plastics, fatty acids, surfactants|
|Buffalo gourd||14.0||5.1||-||Epoxy fatty acids, resins, paints, adhesives|
|Castor||4.4||2.3||0.80||Dyes, paints, varnishes, cosmetics, polymer resins, big-pesticides|
|Coconut||11.0||8.0||0.46||Polymer resins, cosmetics, soap, pharmaceuticals, plasticizers, lubricants|
|Corn||34.0||7.0||0.62||Ethanol, fermentations, resins|
|Crambe||7.5||3.0||1.55||Paints, industrial nylons, lubricants, plastic, foam suppressors, adhesives|
|Cuphae||10.0||4.0||-||Surfactants, lubricants, glycerine, biochemicals|
|Euphorbia||9.0||4.5||-||Surfactants, lubricants, paints, cosmetics|
|Honesty (money plant)||10.0||4.0||1.53||Plastics, foam suppressors, lubricants, cosmetics, industrial nylon|
|Jojoba||15.0||8.3||9.60||Cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, inks, plastics, adhesives, varnishes|
|Lesquerella||7.5||1.8||-||Paints, lubricants, hydraulic fluids, cosmetics|
|Linseed||5.2||2.1||0.50||Drying oils, paints, varnishes, inks, polymer resins, plasticizers|
|Meadowfoam (limnathes)||11.2||3.2||-||Cosmetics, liquid wax, lubricants, rubber, higher fatty acids (C20-C22)|
|Palm oil||-||12.5||0.34||Fermentation products, soap, wax, tin plating, fuel processing, polymers|
|Rapeseed||10.0||4.0||1.30||Plastics, foam suppressors, lubricants, cosmetics, adhesives|
|Safflower||7.0||2.8||0.80||Paints, varnishes, fatty acids, adhesives|
|Soybean||9.5||1.9||0.40||Inks, paint solvents, plasticizers, resins, pharmaceuticals, adhesives|
|Stokes aster||9.0||3.9||-||Plastic resins, plasticizers, paints|
|Sunflower||5.8||4.3||0.32||Plastic resins, plasticizers, fuel additives, surfactants, agro-chemicals|
|Vermonia||7.5||1.7||1.60||Plastics, alkyd paints, epoxy fatty acids|
Data sources: USOTA (1992); Robbelen (1992).
Stricter environmental regulations may provide attractive alternatives for stimulating the biomass industry by targeting environmentally friendly products. The costs involved can sometimes be internalized in the producer's economics. But, more often, they entail external social costs, which allows government to make the cost benefit analysis and provide incentive programmes.
In summary, chemicals from biomass, whether from new or from existing crops, face two major obstacles. The first is that high production entails competing for large-volume, low-margin markets. These markets tend to be volatile, as are the traditional feed/food commodities markets. The second obstacle is that high-margin products tend to have low-volume markets. Commodity chemicals have large markets and are usually low in costs, selling for US$1-3/kg. Specialty chemicals tend to have smaller markets (e.g. about US$56 billion in the United States) and command prices over US$4/kg.
Despite these obstacles, biomass-based commodities could eventually displace many petroleum-based products in the fuel and chemical markets, even without major price increases for petroleum. Obviously, the rate of market penetration would be increased if (or when) petroleum prices rise. The production of biomass-based commodities could potentially reduce dependency on non-renewable resources. Diversification into such areas also opens up new opportunities for the agro-forestry sector, at least where overproduction has been a problem in the past (as in Europe).
Barriers to penetration
To implement and accelerate these changes, a number of conditions must be met. Most of the points made in this section have already been made, but need emphasis. For one thing, it is vitally important to preserve biodiversity, not just for its own sake, but to preserve the genetic information embodied in living organisms. It is not just a question of finding whole organisms with valuable properties. It may be equally important to find organisms with just one valuable property that can be traced to a particular gene or group of genes. It is this possibility that raises hopes of giving food crops the ability to fix nitrogen, or to resist insects, or to tolerate saltier water or colder or hotter temperatures, or to metabolize and break down chlorinated aromatics, such as PCBs, and so on.
It is also important to focus more research on bio-processing. The potential for substituting organic enzymes for inorganic catalysts is worthy of far more attention than it has ever received. The same is true of the use of microorganisms for processing low-grade metal ores or purifying industrial wastes containing heavy metals.
Of course, it is important to develop and to use genetically engineered organisms (GEOs) in a sustainable way. This will require extensive and coordinated research in other sciences, including social and cultural factors. A series of open questions must be asked and answered concerning any application of GEOs.
There are scientific arguments for questioning the scientific validity of the basic premises of genetic engineering. A major assumption is that each specific feature of an organism is encoded in one or a few specific, stable genes so that transferring a gene results in the transfer of a discrete feature, and nothing else. This, however, represents an extreme form of genetic reductionism. It fails to take into account the complex interactions between genes and their cellular, extra-cellular, and external environments. Changing a gene's environment can produce a cascade of further unpredictable changes that could conceivably be harmful.
In the case of genetic transfer to an unrelated host it is literally impossible to predict the consequences: the stabilizing "buffering" control circuits for a gene are exposed to disruption and may be ineffective in new hosts. Owing to the high degree of complexity of any living organism, firm predictions of outcomes are nearly impossible because genomes are known to be "fluid." In other words, they are subject to a host of destabilizing processes such that the transferred gene may mutate, transpose, or recombine within the genome. It can even be transferred to a third organism or another species. In short, the evolutionary stability of organism and ecosystem may be disrupted and threatened. Like the genie in the bottle (in the tale of Aladdin's lamp), once a GEO is deliberately released, or inadvertently escapes from containment, it can never be recalled, even if adverse effects occur. GEOs may migrate, mutate, and multiply.
In addition, there are serious ethical issues concerning the patenting and ownership of life-forms, including implications for cultural values and for indigenous peoples and poor countries.
Editor's note: It is impractical to summarize these issues here, but it is clear that there are many legitimate concerns. Scientists and the business world tend to take the view that the general public should be excluded from the inner circles of decision-making, on grounds of inadequate technical knowledge. But this attitude is essentially undemocratic. It is also likely to backfire. It is worthwhile recalling that nuclear power technology has been discredited largely as a result of public distrust of what the so-called "experts" in government and industry were telling them. To overcome the public knowledge gap, some countries are organizing lay conferences (e.g. NEM 1996).
As an exemplary case, Norway's Gene Technology Act, section 10 (Norway 1993), includes four criteria for a GEO to be acceptable:
- safe to people
- safe to the environment, i.e. the entire ecosphere
- beneficial to the community
- contributing to sustainable development.
Of course, these criteria are quite general. There are endless arguments over how these criteria should be tested and measured. More specific criteria to qualify a micro-organism as "environmentally safe" have been put forward. For instance (Lelieveld et al. 1993):
- non-pathogenic for plants and animals
- unable to reproduce in the open environment (including by delayed reproduction of survival forms such as spores)
- unable to alter equilibria irreversibly between environmental microbial populations
- unable, in the open environment, to transfer genetic traits that would be noxious in other species.
Editor's note: The overriding concern will be safety. It is all too easy to envision GEOs escaping into the natural environment and causing irreversible changes in natural ecosystems. The damage that can be caused by species being introduced inadvertently into environments where they have no natural enemies are well known. A few reminders will help make the point. The rabbit, no problem in Europe, became a major pest when it was introduced into Australia. The sea lamprey, introduced into the Great Lakes via the Welland Canal, has caused great harm to the freshwater fishery there. Dutch elm disease, imported to North America from Europe, has virtually wiped out the most beautiful shade trees of the eastern part of the continent. Another disease of unknown origin has totally wiped out the American chestnut trees, which once dominated the eastern forests. The Japanese beetle also caused enormous damage to agriculture before it was brought under control by pesticides. If such damage can be caused by species that already exist, some sceptics will (and do) argue that the problem could be worse with deliberate genetic manipulation in the picture.
But even the foregoing criteria are ambiguous in a number of ways, because it is unclear how it is to be determined whether or not the criteria are satisfied. It is likely that, in practice, the process of testing and certification for GEOs will be no less rigorous (and possibly much more so) than the current process for drug testing in the United States. Moser takes the view that deliberate ecosystem modification (whether or not GEOs are involved) is wrong and should be prohibited on the grounds of being contra natural (owing to "invasiveness". In principle it is easy to agree, but in practice it seems unlikely that Moser's view will prevail.
Apart from safety and environmental security, there are a number of other questions to be asked and answered with respect to any proposed application. These include questions concerning costs, benefits, and secondary impacts (e.g. reduced need for extractable raw materials, reduced CO2 emissions, remediation of polluted rivers, lakes, or soil, and the maintenance of biodiversity). But, again, it is impossible to go further into detail here.
To summarize, a number of conclusions can be set forth. In the first place, it is safe to say that biotechnologies can and doubtless will contribute significantly to long-run sustainability. They can contribute to solving existing problems such as food security, especially in the developing world (China, India). There is still significant potential for improving the yield and productivity of crops (e.g. rice) and animals, as well as improving nutritional value and taste, disease and pest resistance, storage life, and tolerance of heat, cold, saltiness, wetness, and aridity. A great and likely innovation of the coming decades will be the development of nitrogen-fixing staple crops, such as corn, wheat, and rice. Enormous strides can be expected in aquaculture, fishery management, and food processing, not to mention drinking water purification, composting of garbage, sewage treatment, biomass-based energy production, soil fertility, and decontamination. Developments such as "boneless" breeds (e.g. of trout), "seedless" fruits, and "antifreeze" genes (e.g. for salmon, tomatoes) will also make life interesting.
"Eco-technology" as a vision needs further elaboration and application. To achieve more general acceptance the vision must be sufficiently matured to be able to offer plausible alternatives and to describe transition pathways, from both economic and technological perspectives, such that the solving capacity is regarded as higher than the existing approach. This will require extensive research, development, and experience ("learning by doing"). Some examples are quantified in table 3.8 (Moser 1996).
Genuine practicality in making suggestions requires detailed knowledge of a particular region or country - its history, culture, biosphere, social structure, manpower situation, etc. There is no single set of recipes for a solution. Only general recommendations can be made, as depicted here.
Nevertheless, the direction seems inevitable. In the long run, principles of life must apply. The imperatives of the long-run survival of the human species surely imply that humans must learn to work within nature - as the so-called "indigenous" peoples had to do rather than treating nature as an enemy to be overcome. This long run survival imperative necessitates the preservation of biodiversity, as well as human cultural and social diversity. In this context, technology becomes a powerful tool to assist us to achieve the sort of eco-restructuring that will be required to achieve long-run sustainability.
Table 3.8 Quantitative data on the reduction of the environmental impact (h eco) in the case of some recently elaborated "eco-tech" processes, using the SPI index for the quantification of the production processes (not including the application of the products)
|Drinking water denitrification:||2-5|
|micro-organisms versus electrodialysis|
|renewable versus fossil raw materials used|
|polyhydroxy-butyric acid versus polyethylene|
|rhizabium strains as soil bacteria versus chemical synthetic fertilizer (urea)|
1. Technically, genetic engineering involves cutting and splicing molecules of the substance called deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). The artificially modified forms are known as recombinant DNA or rDNA.
2. Indeed, as of 1994, well over 90 per cent of all worldwide venture-capital funding for biotechnology was targeted at this field of application.
3. See, for instance, the United Nations University's zero emissions research initiative (ZERI) (Paul) 1995).
Braunegg, G. and G. Lefebvre (1993) Modern developments in biodegradable polymers. Kemiza u industriji 42(9): 313-322.
Doebereiner, J. (1994) Comments. In: M. S. Swaminathan (ed.), Proceedings of Ecotechnology and Rural Development Conference, April 12-151993, pp. 99-119. Madras, India: Macmillan India Press.
Dushenkov, V., P. Kumar, H. Motto, and I. Ruskin (1995) Rhizofiltration: The use of plants to remove heavy metals from aqueous streams. Environmental Science and Technology 29: 1239 1245.
Falch, E. (1991) Industrial Enzymes: Developments in Production and Application. Budapest, Hungary: General Meeting, IUPAC, August.
Girardet, H. (1987) Jungle Pharmacy. Video film for TV for the Environment.
Kiel, P. (1992) Bioconversion of agricultural residues. In: K. Soyez and A. Moser (eds.), Proceedings of Internal Workshop on Ecological Bioprocessing, pp. 147-152. Potsdam, Germany: University of Potsdam.
Kumar, Nanda P., V. Dushenkov, H. Motto, and 1. Ruskin (1995) Phytoextraction: The use of plants to remove heavy metals from soils. Environmental Science and Technology 29: 1232-1238.
Lelieveld, H. et al. (1993) EFB workgroup on biosafety. Working Paper. Basel, Switzerland: EFB, 18 February.
Lopez-Mungia, A., C. Rolz, and A. Moser (1994) Integracion de technologies indigenas y biotechnologias modernas: Una Utopia? Intersciencia 19: 177.
Moser, Anton (1994) Trends in biotechnology: From high-tech to
eco-tech. Acta Biotech. 141: 315-335.
- (1996) Ecotechnology in industrial practice. Ecological Engineering 7: 117-138.
NEM (1996) Panel Report: Lay Conference on Genetically Modified Food. Oslo, Norway: National Committee for Research and National Committee for Ethics.
Norway (1993) Gene Technology Act, Act No. 38. Oslo, Norway, 2 April.
Novo Nordisk (1993) Environmental Report. Denmark: Novo Nordisk.
OECD (1989) Report on Biotechnology. Paris: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Pauli, G. (1994) The Breakthrough: What Society Urgently
Needs. Tokyo: United Nations University.
- (1995) Zero Emissions Research Initiative: Status Report. Tokyo: United Nations University, June.
Robbelen G. et al. (eds.) (1991) Oil Crops in the World. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Salt, D. E., M. Blaylock, P. Kumar, V. Dushenkov, B. Ensley, I. Chet, and I. Ruskin (1995) Phytoremediation: A novel strategy for the removal of toxic metals from the environment using plants. Biotechnology 13: 468-474.
Swaminathan, M. S. (1992) Contribution of Biotechnology to
Sustainable Development within the Framework of the United
Nations System. Special Report, IPCT 148. Vienna, Austria:
- (1994) Comments. In: M. S. Swaminathan (ed.), Proceedings of Ecotechnology and Rural Development Conference, April 12-15 1993. Madras, India: Macmillan India Press.
Thomas, Lewis (1974) The technology of medicine. In: Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher. New York: Viking Press.
TME (1992) Biotechnology as a Clean Technology. Delft, Netherlands: TME, prepared for UNEP.
USOTA (United States Office of Technology Assessment) (1992) Agricultural commodities as industrial raw materials. Chemical Marketing Reporter, 9 March.
Wang, R. (1995) State-of-art of eco-engineering in China. Paper presented at International Ecological Engineering Conference, Beijing, China.
4. Materials futures: Pollution prevention, recycling, and improved functionality
Strategies to increase materials productivity
Material performance trends
Pradeep Rohatgi, Kalpana Rohatgi, and Robert U. Ayres
This chapter addresses a key problem in the context of eco-restructuring, namely the extent of technological possibilities for radically increasing materials productivity. It will be recalled that two premises of the book are (1) that economic growth must continue, at least for the foreseeable future, and (2) that the nature of that growth must change radically in order to satisfy the basic requirements of long-run sustainability. That change has two fundamental implications. First, the fact that non-renewable resource stocks are finite dictates that the rate of extraction of non-renewable materials cannot increase significantly over its present level, globally, and must eventually approach zero. Second, the fact that the habitability of the earth for humans depends on the health of the biosphere dictates that the rate of emissions of chemically active - hence potentially harmful - wastes into the environment must be decreased even more drastically, and even sooner.
There are two generic strategies for reducing waste emissions. The first is known as "end-of-pipe" treatment. It is the strategy that has been favoured overwhelmingly up to now. And it will remain essential. But it is ultimately limited in its effectiveness by the fact that wastes can never be completely inert as long as they differ chemically or physically from the composition of the environmental medium into which they are discarded. The other generic approach is to reduce the use of materials, especially non-renewable extractive materials. This is often taken to imply a reduced standard of living, even reversion to a sort of Gandhian lifestyle. It need not imply any such thing. What it does imply is that the economy must generate much more output (GDP) for each unit of physical materials and energy input. In other words, the productivity of materials and energy must be sharply increased and must continue to increase over time.
To increase materials and energy productivity there are several approaches. One that has been discussed frequently in the past is "dematerialization", i.e. to use less material for a given function than in the past. This approach depends partly on scientific progress in materials science, enabling materials to perform better. It also depends on more mundane changes to encourage less wasteful practices in the materials cycle itself - especially less dependence on dissipative uses of materials (such as solvents, cleaning agents, pigments, lubricants, etc.) and more efficient re-use, recovery, and remanufacturing of durable goods. This approach is sometimes called "clean technology," to distinguish it from waste treatment.
When the use of materials is considered from a lifecycle perspective, it is clear that efficient recovery, repair, renovation, remanufacturing, and recycling depend very strongly on how the material is utilized in the first place. Products that are dissipated in use (such as solvents or detergents) cannot be recovered for re-use. Products that are very difficult to disassemble cannot be repaired, renovated, or remanufactured. Clearly, these "end-of-life" issues must be taken into account at the beginning, i.e. at the stage of product design. Design for environment (DFE) is an emerging discipline that attempts to deal with this aspect of the problem. DEE requires that products be designed not only for performance and low manufacturing cost, but also for long life, efficient disassembly, and remanu facturability, and - where remanufacturing is not possible - for efficient recycling.
Clearly the problem of increasing materials productivity raises an enormous number of peripheral issues with respect to needed material performance characteristics. The present chapter deals primarily with the latter.
Contents - Previous - Next