Opinion: Are we there yet? An update on the bio-refinery road map for Scotland

Post Thumbnail

Launched in 2015, the Biorefinery Roadmap for Scotland set out a plan for biorefining to contribute to growing the industrial biotechnology (IB) sector in Scotland from £189M in 2012 to £900M by 2025, as laid out in the Scottish Government’s National Plan for Industrial Biotechnology.

It illustrated how Scotland’s underused resources are creating real opportunities for the economy and outlined required actions to position Scotland as a destination to undertake sustainable manufacturing for the global marketplace.

IB is the process of using natural resources to create new chemicals and ingredients; taking micro-organisms and enzymes to generate industrially useful products in a growing range of sectors including chemicals, food and drink, textiles and biofuels. IB processes can even make use of the waste they produce, creating usable by-products while even generating the very energy with which to power the process itself. IB and biorefining therefore have a long-term future in Scotland – the Biorefinery Roadmap is a step in achieving the ambitious National Plan.

Rather than just a single product, the concept of biorefining allows us to make optimal use of the feedstocks we use and as such the mix of compounds being made in our processes will contain smaller volume, high value and larger volume, lower value streams. Much has been achieved over the past two years, with an 18% increase in Scottish IB turnover to £230M, exceeding the original 2015 target of the National Plan by £30M. But are we there yet?

Scotland’s compact geography is a strength that provides a centralised concentration of population and industry. The length of Scotland’s coastline, increasing forestry production and access to principally Scottish bioresources, provide a range of feedstocks for biorefining. Areas in Scotland where novel supply chains are developing include waste management, renewable energy, forestry and even food and drink – many companies in these sectors are already engaging with the bioenergy and sustainable chemicals sectors. The challenge in exploiting these strengths lies in mapping the scale and shape of the opportunity for the bioeconomy sector to embrace the Scottish Government’s desire for a more circular economy.

The Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC) is a specialist in the IB sector, a unique facility for the promotion of biological substances, systems and processes with 100-strong membership; making it well-placed to enable delivery of the Government’s vision. We are currently working on a bioresource mapping exercise with Zero Waste Scotland, due to be launched later this year. It analyses material waste streams such as commercial & industrial waste; agricultural residues; food & drink by-products; waste water sludges and other bioresources to map the potential of untapped bioresources in Scotland. The material waste stream is estimated to be in excess of 27 million tonnes!

We believe that this is the first time any country’s bioresources have been assessed in such a thorough way, and we expect that the volume of bioresources will confirm that there is sufficient feedstock to enable Scotland to be confident in developing opportunities for biorefining. Bringing a new concept, new infrastructure and new products to market will take time but we are well down the track of positioning Scotland as a key player in this increasingly important global industry.

Dr Paul Hudman is business development manager of Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre in Glasgow.