There is reason to be concerned that the US will lose its driving role in scaling up biorefineries as it has been the case with bioethanol. On the other hand there are two sides to every coin. Europe should continue its path undeterred and take the first-mover advantage. Concerning the Brexit the continental and the British Europe should realize that we share the very same atmosphere; pushing the bioeconomy should remain our common objective. Manfred Kircher, who chairs the Advisory Boards of KADIB and the German Industrial Biotechnology Cluster CLIB2021, talks to The BioJournal. Based on more than 30 years experience in chemical industry and bioeconomy, Kircher he works on regional as well as international bioeconomy strategies. CLIB2021 is an association of about 100 industries, research organisations, investors and development organisations located in Germany, EU and beyond. It is focused on open innovation along bioeconomy value chains.
Manfred Kircher’s career milestones are biotechnological research and development (Degussa AG, Germany), production (Fermas s.r.o.; Slovakia), venture capital (Burrill & Company; USA), biotechnology partnering and branding (Evonik Industries AG; Germany) and building the biotechnology cluster CLIB2021. Manfred Kircher is biologist by training (Goethe-University; Frankfurt, Germany). He has been awarded with a honorary professorship of the Michurinsk State Agrarian University (Russia).
Interview by Mario Bonaccorso
2016 was characterized by the prominence of Southern Europe in the field of bioeconomy: Spain and Italy presented their own national strategy. From the point of view of Germany, what role has the Mediterranean for the development of the European bioeconomy?
Southern Europe has a great potential in the European bioeconomy due to its unique climate and geographical environment as well as its pioneering companies and academic institutes. The long coast line to the Mediterranean sea offers so far underestimated marine resources, the great potential in renewable energies like solar and wind provide opportunities such as power to gas linked to CO2-utilization, and mediterranean agriculture produces a cornucopia of starch and oil crops including biomass. Southern Europe can build on established and promising breeding grounds for innovation. A model example is Lombardia with its established infrastructure of bioeconomy companies like Novamont, incubators like Parco Tecnologico Padano in Lodi, universities like Milano, and last not least networking organisations. The fact that Spain and Italy presented their own national strategies is extremely supportive as it helps to harmonize public and private projects, investments and politics. From the point of view of Germany this step will help very much to agree about common approaches and partnering.
In what way, however, the Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in the US will be able to have influence on the development of the European bioeconomy?
The new US administration has announced to pay not as much attention to climate change as before. There is reason to be concerned that the US will lose its driving role in scaling up biorefineries as it has been the case with bioethanol. On the other hand there are two sides to every coin. Europe should continue its path undeterred and take the first-mover advantage. Concerning the Brexit the continental and the British Europe should realize that we share the very same atmosphere; pushing the bioeconomy should remain our common objective.
Today there is increasing discussion of a new raw material capable of ensuring sustainable development: the CO2. Can you explain what exactly is the CO2 economy? And how is it developing in Germany?
Today there is a widespread perception that CO2 is just a climate killer. However, it is a carbon source as well. This is not only true in photosynthesis. CO2 can be taken from technical processes and recycled directly, thus avoiding emission into the atmosphere. Processes based on algae and photosynthetic bacteria are under development and some already reached industrial scale. Utilizing CO2 in combination with H2 offers other opportunities; ready for implementation is producing methane. H2 may come from natural and industrial sources or is produced by electrolysis of water (power to gas). The latter provides a special opportunity to Southern Europe as this technology is suitable to handle volatile solar and wind peak energy. In Germany cultivation of algae is established on small-scale, methanization of CO2 currently proves itsself on pilot scale and a big project on large-scale valorization of CO2 and CO by chemical catalysts has been issued last year.
The German automotive industry is one of the strengths of your economy. How to bind automobiles and sustainability?
Big industries coin markets and therefore R&D priorities. In Germany the automotive industry plays such a role. Developments to sustainable fuel like biodiesel, bioethanol, bio-methane and H2 draw public attention. Less well known are the efforts to use biopolymers in this sector. Chemical industries provide such materials and use it already in engine components, body construction, seats and the car inner lining. More parts are under development but strict specification for e.g. durability, temperature resistance, odor and noise pattern as well as functionalty in general under different enviroments require several years of testing before market launch.
In Germany, the bioeconomy strategy is being revised. What do you expect from the new strategy?
Since the Paris Climate Change Agreement has been adopted the principal requirements have been changed. No longer depletion of fossil resources is seen among the most important drivers but reducing greenhouse gases is prioritised. Even more than before the bioeconomy is seen as a model securing societal well-being and wealth. Shaping the current transition phase from fossil to bio-based feedstock is a tremendous but urgent challenge. According to the German bioeconomy council „any realignment of the research strategy should focus on bioeconomic approaches for sustainability in consumption and urban development, a circular economy and new forms of energy generation“.
As far as you’re concerned, what measures are essential by the European Union to encourage the development of the bioeconomy?
According to my personal opinion the feedstock change could be accelerated by funding bioeconomical methods not only when applied to pure bio-based but also to fossil carbon (esp. C1-molecules). Such uses start the learning curve early in various settings, thus reducing production cost by industrial practice. In addition, industries not yet ready to use bio-based carbon are motivated to invest in bioeconomy technologies. In the current transition phase fossil- and bio-based carbon will be used in parallel for many years. Although it might sound contradictory the potential of both feedstock should be used to implement bioeconomy processes faster and in more industrial branches, thus accelerating maturation and competitiveness.