Research, plant sciences: Harvesting the potential of bio-renewables
As fossil fuels become costly in both environmental and economic terms, the search is on for more sustainable solutions. The EU-backed EPOBIO project aims to find ways of bypassing the 'fossilised' economy by developing plant-based alternatives.
Many analysts and pundits now believe that we are reaching the peak of petroleum production and, by the middle of the century, oil is likely to have become as economically unviable as it is environmentally damaging. As the world runs down its supplies of fossil fuels, we will need to substitute them with renewable and environmentally friendly fuel sources. We will also need to find substitutes for the raw materials that currently come from oil.
The traditional uses of plant-based oils, fibres, resins, wood, and so forth will need to be extended in magnitude and scope to counteract the dwindling supply of oil. We already obtain bulk materials from plants in the form of wood, carbohydrates, oil, fibre and protein. These make up only about 5% of our industrial raw material needs (non-food). The rest come mainly from fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas.
The EU-funded EPOBIO project was officially launched in November to tackle this very challenge by finding innovative ways of developing renewable bio-fuel and bio-material alternatives to fossil-based fuels and products. It seeks to "to realise the economic potential of plant-derived raw materials to benefit society", according to Dianna Bowles, the project director.
"[It] brings together the science, technologies and the supply chains for the new products to go successfully to market," she continued. EPOBIO plans to help bring a new generation of such projects to market within the next ten to 15 years.
Flagships: all hands on deck
EPOBIO builds on the work of the EC-US Task Force on Biotechnology Research which established a common methodology for research into plant-based bio-products. Transatlantic discussions during 2004 and 2005 established criteria to define 'flagship' themes representing important areas for new international R&D activities. Those criteria are: user/consumer benefit, scientific challenge, economic benefits and risk analysis, and private-sector involvement.
The project will co-operate closely with a number of EU-backed Technology Platforms which are also associated with the emerging concept of the knowledge-based bio-economy. These include the 'Food for life' and 'Plants for the future' Platforms.
The first of two EPOBIO workshops is being held in Wageningen in the Netherlands from 22-24 May. The workshop is entitled 'Products from plants - the biorefinery future'. The gathering will be made up of a series of keynote presentations with a strong industry focus from a global perspective, as well as discussions around possible flagship projects.