Biology lesson

Biotechnology is no stranger to medicine and agriculture, but only now is it beginning to make significant inroads into a range of other industries.

While applications of biotechnology in medicine and agriculture are well documented and understood, there is less awareness of its role in a manufacturing context.

Yet increasingly, a range of industries are beginning to reap the environmental and economic benefits of using micro-organisms for processes as varied as sensing, waste management and even industrial coating.

A draft report produced last month by the UK Industrial Biotechnology Task Force (IBTF) claimed that industrial biotechnology has the potential to play a significant role in reducing greenhouse gases and the use of fossil fuel.

This optimism, however, was tempered with a warning, that with many of the key technologies still emerging, UK industry, although well positioned to make the most of this growing area, has yet to wake up to its full potential. That said, a number of high profile multi-nationals are already using biotechnology in various applications. UK airport operator BAA, is using micro-organisms to treat spilt aircraft antifreeze that collects in the pools used to supply water for fire fighting. And in Brunei, Shell is using biosensors to determine whether its drilling operations have contaminated the soil.

Early last year, as part of the final phase of the DTI’s Bio-Wise initiative, the IBTF was established to help spot the best opportunities for growth and to improve the competitiveness of UK industry through biotechnology.

While the emergence of industrial biotechnology has surprised some, IBTF member Dr Cliff Burton claimed that the sudden elevation of the sector has as much to do with timing as advanced technology. In his view, the market has now matured to the point where there is a clearer picture. Big companies are now becoming more aware of the investment potential, he said.

Burton added that while the whole area used to be blended under the environmental umbrella, it has benefited from this greater focus and now established its own identity. As a consequence, industrial biotechnology could be one of the key players in the next 10-15 years. He pointed to predictions made by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that the core industrial and environmental biotechnology market will be worth $600bn (£320bn) by 2010.

Further impetus has been given to this burgeoning industry by the launch, late last year, of a DTI competition that promises £17m of industrial biotech funding over three years. According to the DTI, £7m of this will be awarded to companies investigating areas such as non-food crops or the use of enzymes for biocatalysts and biotransformation, while a further £10m will go to R&D projects in areas such as minimisation of waste and alternatives to landfill, (thermal, catalytic or biological digestions systems, for example).

A recent showcase, organised as part of the Bio-Project, revealed that advances in genetic techniques have opened up new opportunities for industrial biotechnology, enabling the identification of novel enzymes and active proteins that can be used in new industrial products and processes.

The key areas identified were biosensors, waste management and process manufacturing.

Biosensors have major potential in the monitoring of industrial waste, offering greater flexibility, lower cost and faster results than traditional alternatives.

In one-such project, Sensor Technology for Rapid Environmental Ammonia Monitoring (STREAM), a team comprising the Environment Agency, the University of West England and Gwent Electronic Materials, has developed a device for detecting ammonia in water.

Ammonia build-up is a result of sewage effluent, landfill sites, effluent generated by paper, textile, leather, agricultural, chemical, petrochemical, pharmaceutical and metallurgic industries. This led the partners involved to believe there is a real need for localised testing.

Current testing technology, using ammonium selective ion electrodes, is too insensitive and subject to unacceptably high interference from sodium and potassium. Such systems also typically call for skilled operators and are expensive. They are also less precise, as samples must be transported back to the labs from site, during which time ammonia levels can alter.

STREAM however, has produced the Handi-lab, an easy to use bio-sensor for on-site testing that requires no pre-calibration. In contrast to existing sensors, it is fast and extremely precise. The device is currently being tested by the Environment Agency, and Gwent Electronic Materials claims that it will be able to manufacture up to one million of the sensors a year — enough to meet the projected UK market.

In a separate development, rather than looking to electrochemical testing, the Rapid Onsight Toxicity Audit System (ROTAS) developed by Cybersense Biosystems is based on naturally occurring, light emitting, (bioluminescent) marine bacteria. The substance glows in its healthy, natural state, but dims if mixed with a toxic substance.

During trials, 21 toxic samples were detected, which were not picked up by chemical analysis. At present, UK end-users include Corus, Shell and the Forestry Commission. However, Anne Whittaker, founder and technical support manager of ROTAS, stressed that these tests were intended not to replace but to support other forms of chemical analysis, thereby reducing project costs and increasing accuracy of site characterisation. ROTAS can also be used to provide rapid information during the daily monitoring of waste treatment plants.

In the area of waste management, biotechnology can be used to offset the environmental hazards among industries that produce trade waste effluent as a by-product. David Tucker of Water Development Services (WDS) pointed to the industrial implementation of an anaerobic digestion plant at Treforest Textiles in Pontypridd, Wales.

Tucker explained that the singeing of raw cloth with chemicals and washing to remove sizing agents, was generating large amounts of waste, and costing £140,000 a year in disposal charges. This represented an increase from £16,000 a year in 2002 when Welsh Water opened a new sewage treatment plant in the Cardiff Bay area and levied trade waste charges in accordance with the Mogden Formula. This is an agreement between the water industry and CBI, which charges companies according to the volume and strength of trade effluent discharged.

With the help of a £110,000 Bio-Wise demonstrator grant, WDS installed an upflow anaerobic sludge blanket (UASB) to treat waste water with a high chemical oxygen demand (COD), which refers to the weight of oxygen required to fully combust this matter. This is effectively a measure of the amount of organic matter in waste water, while a UASB is a biological filter in which the waste water passes through a layer of anaerobic bacteria which, in the absence of oxygen, converts the organic matter to methane and CO2.

The reduction in COD achieved during the study (80 per cent in some cases) meant that UASB technology compared favourably with that of aerobic treatment, but without the additional aeration costs.

Additionally, the heat and biogas generated can be recovered and used to preheat the wash water and the water used in Treforest Textile’s boilers. Tucker said that last summer alone UASB technology meant a saving of £35,000 was possible (the annual target was £40,000). He added that the plant is now 95 per cent self-sufficient on biogas.

Tightening of legislation combined with greater chance of litigation means companies must alter their working practices. It is through such pressures that firms are looking to use industrial biotechnology at all stages of production. All Finished 4U, in collaboration with Natural Technologies Group supported through the Bio-Wise scheme, has developed an environmentally friendly pre-treatment conversion coating as an alternative to the traditionally harmful solutions currently used.

AF4U has developed a new treatment, known as a biopolymer system, that uses properties in seaweed to prevent corrosion while retaining paint adhesion. It is designed as a viable alternative to conventional conversion coating systems and contains no added heavy metal or fluoride ions and iron phosphates. As well as being non-polluting, this system produces far less harmful sludge as a by-product, resulting in lower operating and disposal costs.

The benefits are the elimination of chromate, traditionally used in the protection of aluminium, and the improved environmental performance by eliminating toxic waste streams normally associated with chromate and phosphate conversion coating systems. It is also made from sustainable resources such as kelp and other plant materials and has no detrimental effect to the environment.

While the practice of coating surfaces with biomolecules to alter their properties is common in medical fields, the existing industrialapplications are based on concepts that seek to develop innovative and sustainable processes for metal treatment.

Industrial biotech is a rapidly emerging area, and there seems little doubt that it will soon become an important part of many manufacturing processes. It is also clear that the UK is well placed to develop a sizeable share of the market.

But UK companies must not rest on their laurels. Indeed, the IBTF report warns that without increased investment, and an industry-wideco-ordinated approach, the UK could miss out on a golden opportunity to establish itself as the European pace-setter.