Biomass and Bioenergy wishlist for the next UK Government: Jason Hallett

With the UK General Election just a week away, we asked some of our leading researchers and industry partners what their wishlist would be for the next UK Government.

In the fifth and final of the ‘biomass and bioenergy wishlist’ series, Jason Hallett co-Director of the Supergen Bioenergy Hub, Professor of Sustainable Chemical Technology, Royal Academy of Engineering Chair in Emerging Technologies, & Department of Chemical Engineering, Imperial College London, focuses on the pathway towards truly sustainable manufacturing and energy production.

There is a clear need to create a more sustainable UK industry – one capable of a lasting positive impact on the national and global environment. This has been recognised by many national initiatives, including the Biomass Strategy 2023, the Clean Growth Grand Challenge of the UK Industrial Strategy and multiple aspects of the UK Innovation Strategy. However, meeting these goals and several intertwined national and global challenges will require more strategic alignment and a move toward renewable raw material inputs.  As the UK aims to decarbonize by 2050, cleaner growth and transitions in both energy production and manufacturing will be at the forefront. Managing this transition will require strategic advancement in several key areas.

A firm commitment to the UK Bioeconomy

At over £250 billion, the UK bioeconomy is one of our most important industrial sectors. Sugar is the foundation of the bioeconomy, which is entirely based on sugar cane or sugar beet. With the UK bioeconomy projected to double by 2030 and the UK already reliant on imported sugar, an alternative source of glucose is essential for both the economics and supply security of the future UK bioeconomy.

Driving a paradigm shift in the industrial scale production of chemicals, fuels and materials by integrating sugar production with high-value biorefinery products is the most economical and expedient method of diversifying away from fossil fuels and petrochemical feedstocks. Biotechnology can make a major positive contribution to the environment and is economically and strategically important to UK industry, which is increasingly reliant on biological manufacturing processes – e.g. in pharmaceuticals, fine chemicals, and bioenergy. With the anticipated transition from fossil carbon to renewable feedstocks, it is increasingly important to develop alternative chemical manufacturing routes which can support sugar demand in an economical fashion; efficiency, low-cost feedstocks and co-product development are essential and must be incentivised.

A secure national supply of biomass-derived sugar

While the desire to expand the UK bioeconomy is well underway, until recently the security of a sustainable feedstock supply had been largely ignored. However, after the release of the 2023 Biomass Strategy and 2021 BEIS report on zero-carbon products, the need to shift to a second-generation (cellulosic) sugar supply has moved to the strategic forefront. The development of a secure national supply of cellulosic sugars would expand the UK’s competitive advantages within the bioeconomy and drive economic and social benefits from increasing the national manufacturing base and reducing reliance on feedstock imports. The use of cellulosic materials would accelerate the UK’s transition to 2050 net zero carbon targets and provide a more sustainable carbon feedstock base for future materials and energy production over the next century.

Delivery of this emerging technology will require integration with the existing UK biomass economy, which is naturally more diverse than forestry-based economies in Scandanavia or North America. This will require strong links between the UK biomass providers and processers and commercial and policy incentives throughout the biobased chemical and bioenergy supply chain.

Transition from a linear to a circular economy

A key goal of renewable manufacturing is to extend the use of our limited resources by incorporating renewable feedstocks to replace petrochemicals in energy, fuels, chemicals and materials production. These aims also align perfectly with the goals of UK industry, as key pillars of the Build Back Greener platform include Net Zero targets and clean innovation throughout UK industry, particularly in the UK bioeconomy.

Innovation and translation within manufacturing aims to maximise impact and bring about positive, transformative changes within both industry and the environment. These goals also align with many aspects of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, especially Responsible Production, Sustainable Industry, Climate and by enabling the production of sustainable protein (Zero Hunger) and Clean Energy. A biobased, circular economy is critical to achieving this transition. We have never had our materials and energy production obtained from separate sources. The growth of renewable energy will enable this restriction to be broken and open up a better system of production. While plans to diversify energy production (biomass, wind solar) are well developed, similar advances in fuels, chemicals, materials and products are needed.

The historically linear economy is under attack and rightly so – mass consumption of limited resources has created problems with environmental damage, supply disruption, price instability and waste disposal. While current efforts have focussed on plastic recycling, metals and minerals, the use of renewable, biomass-derived feedstocks will underpin a circular bioeconomy in the carbon sector. This will ensure everything – from consumer products to clothes, food, fuels and plastics – contains inherently safe and recycle raw materials, starting with a renewable carbon feedstock and ending with a fully incentivised collection, sorting and recycling. Only then will we be on a pathway to truly sustainable manufacturing and energy production.

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