Prof. Dr. Achim Bachem: Bioeconomy Science Center – 1,000 brilliant minds serving science

How can we gain independence from fossil raw materials and provide the world’s population with enough to eat? For more than 1,000 scientists at the BioSC, bioeconomy holds the answers to many of such questions.

 

What comes after oil? How can we provide the increasing world population with high-quality food? These questions will be of utmost importance for the future develop­ment of the world. Be it for food or chemical production or fuel generation, crude oil has been the most-used raw material in almost every industry for decades.

One thing is clear: the fossil era is coming to an end, regardless of whether peak oil is already behind us or is imminent. The question of how we can replace fossil raw materials in the production cycles of modern economies is becoming increasingly relevant in light of accelerating climate change. At the moment, the only possible substitutes are renewable raw materials. Producing sufficient quantities without risking drops in productivity and shortages of food or fodder represents a challenge for society. Providing the world’s population with enough to eat is a particularly important topic that should be a top priority, given that it is ex­­pected to increase from 6.8 to 9.6 billion by 2050. The only way of accomplishing this is by in­­creasing the yield and quality of crop plants, and doing so in spite of limited agricultural areas and taking the climate change factor into account. On top of that, there are other challenges. How can we produce new types of fuel in order to maintain the high level of mobility our societies have come to expect? What can we do to provide sufficient raw materials for industrial use? How can we generate these types of raw materials without limiting the required production of food? Specialised knowledge is becoming more and more important in the search for the bio-based and sustainable solutions needed to overcome these problems.

Biomass as the key to answering the pressing questions of the future. The concept of a knowledge-based bioeconomy is a promising approach to solving these conundrums. The goal is for industries depending on fossil fuels to switch to an economy based on biomass. Renewable raw materials represent the foundation for this development. The bioeconomy pursues a vision of using knowledge on organisms and biological processes in an integrated way in order to produce sustainable food, raw materials, chemicals, bio-based materials and fuels. In this context, the economic, eco­­logical and social aspects of sustainability are con­­sidered just as much as the necessary adjustment to climate change. The approach of an integrat­ed bioeconomy includes all economic sectors and the associated services that produce, process or use biological resources.

Processing biomass and the products generated there­­of form the foundation of the bioeconomy. Biomass has an essential function as food, fodder, an industrial raw material and an energy carrier. Even biomass not used by people plays a crucial role, for example, as a nutrient in ecosystems, a natural habitat for a wide range of animals or a way of storing large quantities of carbon dioxide for the purpose of climate protection.

 

The potential of the bioeconomy lies in the development of new types of products and production processes, in using synergies and increasing the efficiency of resources of the different interconnected bio-based value chains. They extend from the generation of biomass in agriculture and forestry to end products in the food and fodder economy, in the energy sector and in the areas of industry, such as the chemical, textile, paper or pharmaceutical industries.

German politicians recognised the potential of bioeconomy long ago. As early as 2009, the German federal government set up the Bioeconomy Research and Technology Council, an independent advisory body that gives recommendations for the development and implementation of a knowledge-based bioeconomy from a scientific point of view. In September 2010, the na­­tional Bioeconomy Council issued a report whose recommendations form the basis for the National Research Strategy BioEconomy 2030 government programme. In this publication, the German federal government outlined its ideas on how to manage and support the transition to a bio-based economy.

The Bioeconomy Science Center – a systemic overall concept. A knowledge-based bioeconomy requires the integration of various research disciplines and high-level scientific expertise in an integrative concept. Based on this vision, the Bioeconomy Science Center (BioSC) was founded in October 2010 in the heart of the Aachen-Bonn-Düsseldorf-Jülich Rhineland city quadrangle. The long-term scientific cooperation between RWTH Aachen University, the Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf, the University of Bonn and the Forschungszentrum Jülich research centre has already presented outstanding re­­search activities in numerous areas of bioeconomy. As a result, it has formed an excellent research landscape within a strong bioeconomy-oriented industrial environment in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW). The four partners developed a concept for providing biomass and bio-based products and processes, which integrates all relevant scientific branches into a tangible and currently unique re­search centre in NRW.



The Bioeconomy Science Center is based on an integrated structure of fundamental, application-based and industry-oriented research that comprises engi­­n­­eering, econom­ics and natural sciences.

More than 1,400 employees working at the institutes involved in the BioSC and other partners from the science and economy sectors combine their individual specialist expertise on the basis of a mutual strategy and conduct cross-disciplinary research into how new products and processes based on biological principles could be established. In doing so, the BioSC does not include all bioeconomically relevant science branches and areas of activity, but focuses on four research areas based on the partners’ strengths:
1. Sustainable vegetable bioproduction and resource protection
2. Microbacterial and molecular conversion
3. Process engineering of renewable raw materials
4. Economy and social implications of bioeconomy

An example: in Bonn, vegetable biomass can be cultivated in a sustainable way and its properties are analysed and optimised in Düsseldorf and Jülich. Building on this work, the engineers in Aachen can then develop a new method for processing vegetable biomass, which can subsequently be transformed into new reusable materials and active ingredients for material use in biological and chemical processes.

RWTH Aachen University, the universities of Bonn and Düsseldorf and Forschungszentrum Jülich coordinate with each other when it comes to new appointments in the bioeconomy sector. In the process, they pursue the strategy of placing the necessary focuses at the facilities in terms of content and continuing to develop bioeconomic research in the North Rhine-Westphalia region in a structured and synergistic manner. Alongside research, teaching and train­ing in the various areas of activity in bioeconomy represent another core element of the BioSC.

Since 2013, the federal state of NRW has been supporting the Bioeconomy Science Center as part of a long-term project funding programme. The NRW strategy project BioSC plans to implement numerous measures for connecting and integrating the research focuses and BioSC locations. More than 58 million euros will be available for this purpose in the next ten years. Cross-­­disciplinary research projects intended to answer new questions in research related to bioeconomy form the heart of the funding programme. These projects develop at a quick pace and thus require both short and long-term project planning. Accordingly, BioSC employees can participate in coopera­tion projects with other BioSC partners. Two funding lines – offering the opportunity to submit applications for projects with a range of scopes, objectives and developmental and integration statuses – help in developing solution contributions for dealing with big social challenges.

The author was chairman of the board of directors at the Forschungszentrum Jülich for eight years. Before that, he was a member of the executive board of the German Aerospace Centre and delegate to the European Space Agency (ESA). Bachem studied Mathematics and Physics at the Universities of Cologne and Bonn. During his university career, he was the resident professor for Applied Mathematics and a founding director of the Institute for Informatics at the University of Cologne.