What comes next after oil? The answer to that question will have a decisive significance for the future development of the world. For decades, petroleum has been the raw material on which almost all of our industry is based – from the production of foods to chemicals or fuels.
One thing is certain: the fossil age will end in the near future, independently of whether the peak oil has already been reached or is imminent. The question of what modern economies are going to use to replace the raw material oil in their production cycles is gaining even more importance in view of the progressing climate change. How will it be possible to provide a steadily growing world population with high-quality foods despite limited farm land and under the conditions of climate change? In expectation of an increase of the global population from 6.8 to 9.5 billion people by 2050, that topic must be a top priority. There are further challenges: how can we obtain new fuels in order to assure the high degree of mobility of our societies? In which way is it going to be possible to provide a sufficient amount of raw materials for industrial uses?
Biomass as the key to answering urgent questions of the future. The concept of a knowledge-based bioeconomy offers a promising approach to answering those questions. Its objective is to replace the petroleum-based industries with a biomass-based economy. Renewable resources represent the foundation of that development. Bioeconomy pursues the vision of an integrated utilisation of knowledge about organisms and biological processes for the sustainable production of foods, raw materials, chemicals, bio-based materials, and fuels. In doing so, the economic, ecological and social aspects of sustainability are taken into account just as well as the necessary adaptation to climate change. The bioeconomy approach encompasses all economic sectors and related services that produce, process or utilise biological resources.
The processing of biomass and the resulting products constitute the foundation of bioeconomy. Biomass has an important function as food and feed, as industrial raw material and as energy source. Even biomass that is not utilised by humankind plays a significant role as nutrient in ecosystems, habitat for various living organisms or storage for large quantities of carbon dioxide to protect the climate.
The potential of bioeconomy lies in developing novel products and production processes, utilising synergies, and improving the resource efficiency of the various interconnected bio-based supply chains. Those reach from the production of biomass in agriculture and forestry to that of end products in the food and feed economy, in the energy economy and in sectors such as the chemical, textile, paper and pharmacological industries.
The German government has long recognised the potential of bioeconomy. Back in 2009, the federal government of the time founded the national Bio-economy Research and Technology Council as an independent advisory body intended to make scientific recommendations for the development and implementation of a knowledge-based bioeconomy. The recommendations contained in the expert opinion rendered by the national BioEconomyCouncil in September 2010 have become the foundation of the government programme “National Research Strategy BioEconomy 2030”. In that publication, the federal government introduced its ideas on how to succeed in bringing about and supporting the transformation towards a bio-based economy.
The foundation of the bioeconomy strategy consists in making Germany a leading research and innovation location for bioeconomy through a concerted commitment of government, business and science to pursuing that goal. For, progress in that field can give growth impulses to numerous traditional sectors such as food trade, IT industry, automotive industry, and building trade.
The Bioeconomy Science Center – a systemic master plan. A knowledge-based bioeconomy depends on integrating various research disciplines and high-ranking scientific expertise into an integrative concept. Following that vision, the Bioeconomy Science Center (BioSC) was founded within the Aachen-Bonn-Düsseldorf-Jülich rectangle in the heart of the Rhineland in October 2010. In that long-term scientific cooperation, the RWTH University of Aachen, the Heinrich Heine University of Düsseldorf, the Friedrich Wilhelms University of Bonn and the Jülich Research Centre have already been combining excellent and outstanding research activities in numerous bioeconomic topics, thereby shaping an excellent research landscape in a strong and wide-ranging bioeconomy-oriented industrial environment in North Rhine-Westphalia.
The four partners have developed a concept representing all scientific fields relevant in providing biomass and bio-based products and processes in an internationally visible and currently unique competency centre in North Rhine-Westphalia.
The Bioeconomy Science Center is based on an integrated structure of fundamental research as well as application-oriented and industry-related research encompassing natural, engineering and economic sciences.
Upwards of 1,200 staff members of the institutes participating in the BioSC as well as other science and business partners are combining their specialist expertise on the basis of a common strategy and researching across disciplines how to establish new biology-based products and processes. Case in point: in Bonn, plant-based biomass can be sustainably cultivated, while its properties are being analysed and optimised in Düsseldorf and Jülich. Based on that, engineers in Aachen can develop a new process for processing plant-based biomass, which can be utilised in biological and chemical processes to be transformed into new reusable materials and active ingredients. Economists study under which criteria the process is economical and what social aspects must be taken into account.
Opportunities for the location of Germany. Bioeconomy already contributes significantly to the German and European economies and will continue to gain in importance on a global scale as well. Throughout Europe, approximately 22 million people currently generate a yearly turnover of approximately 1.7 trillion euros across a variety of participating branches. In Germany alone, two million people contribute to generating a value added of about 300 billion euros. Meanwhile, knowledge-based bioeconomy unites economic prosperity with the objective of ecological sustainability like no other research and technology branch does. Bioeconomy, thus, is more than a mere growth sector: it is also a new approach to bringing business, society and science together to communicate about our world’s big questions of the future
The author is CEO of Jülich Research Centre since 2006. Previously, he was a member of the board of the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and a delegate of ESA. The author studied mathematics and physics at the universities of Cologne and Bonn. In the course of his university career, he was a professor of applied mathematics and active as a founding director of the IT Institute of the University of Cologne.