Biotechnology and Biofuels: Is This the Future of Greener Energy?

The use of traditional fossil fuels to cater to the energetic demands of a growing world population has created significant environmental impacts. From air pollution to the rise of global temperatures due to the release of greenhouse gases, the unsustainability of fossil fuels has transformed the foreseeable future. However, energy needs still need to be met; could sustainable, renewable alternatives alleviate the dependence on fossil fuels?

Algae fuel biofuel industry lab researching for alternative to fossil algae fuel or algal biofuel.

Image Credit: Toa55/Shutterstock.com

Biofuels have been proposed as one such alternative. Using plant-based feedstocks, agricultural waste, and algae to produce cleaner-burning fuels can reduce carbon dioxide emissions while contributing toward energy demands. To develop effective biofuels, biotechnology has become a crucial component of the biofuel industry and renewable strategies overall.

Biotechnology refers to the development of technology based on biological organisms, functions, and systems. It encompasses genetic engineering and synthetic biology, which enable the use and modification of plants or microbes. In a 2019 review of biotechnological innovations, Straathof et al. highlight how biological engineering is central to technological progress that contributes to developing more effective technology systems and reaching sustainable goals.

Biotechnological Innovations of Biofuels

In recent years, biotechnological innovations have facilitated the production of advanced biofuel processes through genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Biotechnology enables the genetic modification of plants and microorganisms to enhance the effectiveness of their targeted functions as well as traits such as stress tolerance. Increasing the effectiveness of microbial action has been achieved by expanding the energy content, yield, and conversion ability of microbes from biomass to biofuels.

Alongside GMOs, synthetic biology is pivotal to harnessing microbes for optimizing biofuel production. In a comprehensive review of synthetic biology, Eskandar et al. (2023) describe how synthetic biology is the new frontier of biotechnology, using nanotechnology and bioremediation to achieve a range of medical, energetic, and environmental goals.

Within synthetic biology, molecular tools are used to modify metabolic pathways, optimize enzyme activity, and improve substrate utilization by microbes, which all accelerate and increase the conversion rate of biomass into biofuels.

Another biotechnological pillar contributing to the development of biofuels is the development of enzyme technology. Although closely associated with GMOs and synthetic biology, enzyme technology focuses on a specific step within biofuel production: breaking down biomass to produce biofuel.

Enzymes are responsible for the breakdown of complex carbohydrates into simpler sugars, increasing the accessibility of biomass for biofuel production processes such as fermentation or enzymatic hydrolysis. Researchers have managed to accelerate the catalytic activity, stability, and substrate specificity of enzymes involved in biomass degradation through protein engineering.

Environmental Impacts of Biofuel Production

A 2020 review of the environmental sustainability of biofuel by Jeswani et al. found that biofuels hold several advantages when comparing the greenhouse gas emissions of biofuels with the use of fossil fuels. Biofuels such as cellulosic ethanol have fewer additives contributing to CO2 release, biofuels are also derived from renewable sources of energy (plants or waste) and release the CO2 absorbed by plants during their growth, thus maintaining a system balance of energy more sustainable than fossil fuels.

However, the review also discusses how biofuels contribute toward impacts such as ocean acidification, eutrophication, higher water footprint and biodiversity loss. Biofuel production does require land, thus potentially exacerbating habitat destruction and loss of biodiversity. However, recent solutions, including using degraded lands, implementing agroforestry systems, and promoting crop rotation, help mitigate the impacts of biofuel production on ecosystems.

Similarly, water footprint is important to consider in biofuel production. Biofuels require water for growth and processing, which may be in competition with other water-intensive sectors of human activity. Such competition and demands may be avoided through water recycling and conservation measures and selecting biofuel crops suitable for local water availability, thus reducing the overall reliance on water.

Case Studies of Biotechnology and Biofuels

The role of biotechnology in the development of biofuel production was exemplified in Brazil, where the use of genetically modified sugarcane combined with advanced fermentation techniques produced new biofuels. Brazil is currently a leader in global ethanol production, providing the country with a deep pool of resources to produce cellulosic ethanol. However, balancing new biofuel production with food and fuel production is challenging in terms of land use, and environmental impacts remain.

Private companies are also progressing in the efficiency of biofuels. Novozymes (https://www.novozymes.com/en) is a company based in Denmark specializing in using enzyme technology to develop industrial enzymes, microorganisms, and biopharmaceutical ingredients. Developing more efficient enzymatic action can directly improve the cost-effectiveness and sustainability of biofuel production processes, overcoming a key challenge limiting the progress of biofuels.

Around the world, biotechnological innovations are increasingly made by private companies. However, many face the so-called ‘valley of death’, which occurs between the development and launch of new products. Calza et al. (2021) examined how companies can survive this challenge by focusing on strategic relationships between companies and governments, universities, and other institutions, which can contribute towards stable progress and product launch, ultimately culminating in more effective biotechnological pipelines.

Conclusion

Biotechnology is an essential driver of biofuel production and is key to greener, more sustainable energy production. Genetic engineering, enzyme optimization, and other biotechnological fields make biofuels more efficient, cost-effective, and sustainable. However, certain bottlenecks remain in the production of biofuels, including scalability and the reduction of environmental impacts.

Moreover, since biofuels are likely to play an increasingly important role in our energetic future, it may be important to consider biofuel impacts beyond the environment, which were examined by Falcone et al. (2019). Additionally, promising new materials, such as fungi (Raven et al. 2019), may also offer alternative sources to the expanding repertoire of biofuel products. Ultimately, biofuels offer a promising alternative to unsustainable fossil fuels.

Sources:

Calza, F., et al.(2020). Moving drug discoveries beyond the valley of death: the role of innovation ecosystems. European Journal of Innovation Management, 24(4), pp. 1184–1209. https://doi.org/10.1108/ejim-11-2019-0342

Eskandar, K. (2023). Revolutionizing biotechnology and bioengineering: unleashing the power of innovation. Journal of Applied Biotechnology & Bioengineering, 10(3), pp. 81–88. https://doi.org/10.15406/jabb.2023.10.00332

Falcone, P. M., et al. (2019). Transitioning towards the bio‐economy: Assessing the social dimension through a stakeholder lens. Corporate Social Responsibility and Environmental Management, 26(5), pp. 1135–1153. doi.org/10.1002/csr.1791

Jeswani, H. K., et al. (2020). Environmental sustainability of biofuels: a review. Proceedings of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, 476(2243). doi.org/10.1098/rspa.2020.0351

Raven, S., et al. (2019). Fungal Biofuels: Innovative Approaches. In Fungal biology, pp. 385–405. doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-14846-1_13

Straathof, A. J. J., et al. (2019). Grand Research Challenges for sustainable industrial biotechnology. Trends in Biotechnology, 37(10), pp. 1042–1050. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tibtech.2019.04.002

Further Reading

Last Updated: Nov 13, 2023

James Ducker

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James Ducker

James completed his bachelor in Science studying Zoology at the University of Manchester, with his undergraduate work culminating in the study of the physiological impacts of ocean warming and hypoxia on catsharks. He then pursued a Masters in Research (MRes) in Marine Biology at the University of Plymouth focusing on the urbanization of coastlines and its consequences for biodiversity.  

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