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Next stop, the bio-based economy

03/10/2011

  • Experts interviews
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Lars Hansen, Regional President Europe at enzyme maker Novozymes, sets out a vision for a bio-based future, with products from detergents to advanced biofuels mimicking nature to protect it.

Novozymes is one of the world’s largest enzyme manufacturers, namely it produces molecules that speed up chemical reactions. Through successive innovations it has helped create washing products that are biodegradable, less energy- and CO2-intensive because they wash at lower temperature, and economical on packaging because they are very compact.

But the company believes more can be done: its ultimate goal is zero-impact laundering. Beyond this, Novozymes’ vision for the bio-based economy extends to advanced biofuels and ultimately biochemicals.

How does innovation feature in your work?

We’re spending a tonne of money on it: about 14% of our annual turnover goes back into research. What we do is work on the back of nature’s own innovation. For billions of years nature has been optimising biological processes, which are centred on enzymes.

I liken the image of an enzyme to Pacman, from the old arcade game. We’re in the business of making different kinds of Pacmans. We find out what nature can do and we work on that, we purify it, we scale it up. We produce enzymes for uses in everything from detergents to biofuel production.

If we need to find an enzyme that takes away fatty stains at low temperature, we might go to Iceland or Greenland to look for enzymes there because we would be looking for biological processes working at cold temperatures.

What environmental benefits have you delivered?

In detergents, there is a focus on energy, meaning a drive to wash at lower temperatures. One way of doing that is by applying particular enzymes instead of traditional chemistry. Consumers like it because they save on electricity bills and it’s good for the planet because it saves on CO2.

We also found that you can get same level of washing performance in smaller packs when you use more efficient ingredients such as enzymes. In doing so, of course you save on transport and packaging material.

Finally, you can go in and replace some of the chemicals in detergents. We are currently trying to find enzymes that can replace the oil-based surfactants that help bind dirt.

What scope is there for further improvement?

We think we can get to zero-impact laundering but this will require efforts from the whole value chain, all the way from the detergent manufacturers to the people making the washing machines to consumers.

The natural next step, which is already happening to a certain extent, is further lowering the washing temperature. We think we can take it to 20 to 30(C from the average 40 to 50(C today.

What are your main innovation drivers?

You could say that the whole climate and resource-scarcity debate is an innovation driver for us because all our products are based on exactly that –  doing more with less.

Apart from that, biofuels would be the area where there is the closest link between policy and our business. In the long run, policy incentives will no longer be needed but to get it off the ground, they are.

In our other industries, be they detergents, textiles or beer making, we have always been selling based on regular economics –  we didn’t need the environmental policy to sell.

How much overlap is there in your work for different industries?

We’re in 30 to 35 different industries and there is a lot of cross fertilisation between them. The same classes of enzymes can be used in many different ways.

Moreover, we can piggy back on each other. If you look for a specific class of enzymes for a laundry detergent, you come back with a million different versions and screen them. Then it’s easy to go back and screen them again for a different purpose. In this way the work done on detergents could also be relevant for biofuels.

What does the future hold?

We believe in the European knowledge-based bio-economy. Biofuels is just the first step. A biofuels manufacturing site is in effect a biorefinery with just one product. In the future, they will have multiple inputs, from agricultural residues to municipal waste, and many more outputs, including biochemicals to make textiles and plastics, for example.

But without a solid biofuel industry, we’re never going to get to the biorefinery concept. Biofuels will give us the scale, the market, for their construction.

The beautiful thing is that in the middle of the biorefinery you have this conversion to sugar and this sugar can take you anywhere. From our perspective, sugar should be the new oil, the basic molecules the bio-based economy will be founded on.

Stronger incentives for advanced biofuels today and a future policy framework for biochemicals are essential to trigger the huge investments needed to get this industry off the ground.

More information

Related information on the EcoAP Website