After attending last year’s Energy Convention, Jack came out with a new found appreciation for finding solutions through biology. Eager to find out more about how this could relate to energy, he went to talk to Dick Janssen, a professor in Chemical Biotechnology. Read on to discover what he found out.
During last year’s Energy Convention – which I was lucky enough to attend – I managed to see Ylva Poelman take to the stage to talk about the topic of bionics. Ylva, the author of ‘De natuur als uitvinder’ and professor of applied sciences at the Hanze, was one of our keynote speakers. Ever since, I’ve found the idea of finding solutions to modern day problems through biology and life an interesting one. In addition I recently had a course in biochemistry which has left me a little more knowledgeable in the field; leading to a desire to find out more about biotechnology. Luckily as a student that spends a lot of time on the Zernike Campus, I was always in the perfect position to find out more, so during a lecture break I went to talk to Prof. Dick Janssen who specialises in Chemical Biotechnology.
To give you a definition, biotechnology is the use of biological processes in order to create a product for industry; one example being the production of antibiotics or perhaps even plastics. As such this type of technology is very different to the chemical technology that has developed in recent years, this distinction lead to the first question I asked: what are the main differences between the 2 methods? The first point was that biotechnological pathways have the distinct advantage in that they use less energy and produce less waste. From what I’ve seen in the lab this certainly seems to make sense as chemical reactions often require high temperatures and as winter bills suggest, maintaining temperatures is pricey. He elaborated further saying that many chemical processes have been replaced in which an enzyme now performs the function of what was previously a metal catalyst, which reduces waste and in the long run saves energy.
With benefits that favour the environment to a large degree, it seems to essentially prove that there are limitations associated with biotechnology. Dick told me that when it comes to designing new processes there are long development times, not to mention the productivity – or turnover – of these processes is rather small; my experience in a student house definitely agrees that biological lifeforms like to waste a lot of time. In addition there are actually a limited amount of chemical processes which can be replaced by biological ones, coupled with reasons related to cost. Though biotechnology can result in a reduced need for energy, it is also used as a method of energy production by various techniques such as burning wood chips or fermenting biological waste in the production of biogas. The latter is a technique which has no net carbon footprint – despite releasing carbon dioxide upon use – making it a great addition to wind and solar in the hope of transitioning into a sustainable future.
From what I learned, I think one of the major positives associated with biotechnology is that there is a reduction in energy use as well as a reduction in waste compared to the current methods used in industry. Through using less materials and producing less waste, this also reduces the carbon footprint of the whole process. However, given the large advances we have made as a society in recent years with regard to our technology, it’s going to be difficult for biotechnology to catch up; regardless of that, it’s still important to try.