What biocatalysis has to offer for green industries and city planning?
In our world, anything nearly perfect tends to be stamped as fantasy. Does this kind of statement imply the character of human endeavour, its very essence? On the contrary, nature represents purity and clarity.
All of us have been staring at the starry night. The organisation of the macrocosm can equally well be seen in the microscopic world. There, the microorganisms make the wheels of the microcosmic universe turn around. Together with plants and animals, they comprise the constituents of the biosphere. Why, then, do human industries get contented with anything less? Microbes and their enzymes could make the wheels turn around in future industries.
Recently, it has become increasingly evident that heavy and fast industrialization not only elevated our standard of living but has also led us to the brink of abysmal ecocatastrophes. Fortunately, we have the vast resources of molecular universes in our use to avoid their aftermath or repair the damages. Sadly, we have wasted those resources for a long time.
"There is plenty of room at the bottom". The saying of physicist Richard Feynman in 1959 gives us many leads. It has actualized in the IT revolution of our times. This has enabled giant steps in industrial control and maintenance of machinery, steering and adjustments of processes, flow of information, and, last but not least, ecological efficiency. We have eventually come closer to the ways of functioning of biological entities, ecosystems, and the cells and microbes in particular. The miniaturisation of technical solutions has brought us nearer the scale of microbes, molecules, atoms and their structures, which, indeed, have a lot of space for variation and production.
Power of biocatalysis
Biocatalysis in Nature could be described as allowing low reaction energies in the microscale. This is the secret of all the incredible effectiveness of organismal life around us. This built-in energy network of living cells and their enzymes facilitates our lives and that of plants, animals and microorganisms. Why could we not exploit it in our industries more intensively than so far?
The low-energy route could decisively help us avoid the often predicted loss of natural resources. It could also lower the emissions of manufacturing, agriculture, energy production and all sectors of our economy (Fig. 1).
Moreover, as integrated with human or AI intelligence, this nature-born enormous efficiency could ultimately boost future endeavours for investigating, innovating and developing novel disruptive technologies for our use. This technology platform is by far more sustainable than any other imaginable solution. Using it effectively, we could also harness the biological multitudes and reactions for cleaning up our polluted and intoxicated planet Earth.
Dreams and reality of the future industrial bio-revolution
In natural ecosystems, energy flows, and materials circulate. This could also be achievable in the industrial ecosystems. Ten years ago, we, Member of the Swedish Royal Academy of Engineering and Chairman of the Scandinavian Simulation and Modelling Society, Professor Erik Dahlquist, and Professor Semida Silveira, the current Professor in Practise in the Systems Engineering Program at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, and one of the authors of this article, microbiologist Elias Hakalehto, published a calculation that the annual biomass increase could provide twice the energies needed globally. Also, the various petrochemical goods could be produced in complementary biorefineries based on organic sources. A citation of our chapter "Concluding remarks and perspectives on the future of energy systems using biomass" in the book edited by E. Dahlquist, "Biomass as Energy Source. Resources, Systems and Applications", published in 2013 by CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group, Boca Raton:
"In the chapter on global biomass resources, we have seen that biomass can fulfil most of the energy resources as well as for replacement of fossil fuels for the production of plastics and similar. What we still have to do is to use all materials and resources in an efficient system, where the same fibres, for instance, are used many times for different purposes before they eventually are combusted, instead of combusting stem wood directly. What is considered waste should instead be seen as a valuable resource."
This valuable principle and method for global survival have been applied in practical experiments of the ABOWE European Union Baltic Sea Region biorefinery project, ending in 2014. In the "Zero Waste from Zero Fiber '' project in Tampere, funded by the Finnish Government in 2018-19, the ecosystem engineering of massive past industrial lake bottom sediments into valuable chemicals, energy gases and organic fertilisers was accomplished in an economically feasible way. These projects are referred to in the Maintworld magazine 3/2023 and before, as well as in the recent lectures at the European Geosciences Union (EGU) general assembly in 2022 and 2023. Indeed, we could see the shoots of true ecodevelopment emerging and potentially growing into "sheaves in the field of progress", as the statement made a century ago by the first Finnish president, K.J. Ståhlberg, could be modified.
We need today the political will as it was summed up in our 2013 book chapter (see above): "Only facts are not enough. Good examples are also significant, and these have to be presented in a convincing way. Then both regulatory frameworks and interest from investors could be achieved. Thereby system development can take place." - Furthermore, a citation from the same source: "In fact, it could be much better to treat and recycle the wastes in a sustainable way including the microbiological and biotechnological solutions, than by just discharging the organic loads into the water and maritime ecosystems, or to the atmosphere." This principle could be equally applicable in the "cradle of Finnish industries" in Tampere, as well as globally in any place where forest or other biomass industries will be developed into true circulation economics (see above).
In 1874, French writer Jules Verne predicted in his book "Mysterious Island" the future we aim for and head toward. This old reasoning and imagination of one of the most eminent early science fiction authors illustrates the roots of an essential and potential avenue for future development: biohydrogen. Its implementation could now lead to sustainable planning of cities, their food production and traffic, and societies in general too. See Fig. 2.
Quotations of the "Mysterious Island" (1874) by Jules Verne:
• "...I believe that water will one day be employed as fuel, that hydrogen and oxygen which constitute it, used singly or together, will furnish an inexhaustible source of heat and light of an intensity of which coal is not capable."
• "Some day the coalrooms of steamers and the tenders of locomotives will, instead of coal, be stored with these condensed gases, which will burn in the furnaces with enormous calorific power..."
• "...there will be no want of either light or heat as long as the productions of the vegetable, mineral or animal kingdoms do not fail us. I believe, then, that when the deposits of coal are exhausted, we shall heat and warm ourselves with water. Water will be the coal of the future."
In the previous Maintworld article (in volume 3/2023), Elias Hakalehto took up the potential of biologically produced hydrogen, or biohydrogen, in solving global and local energy needs. It could be made using anaerobic bacteria or other microbes to split the water in renewable energy sources into Hydrogen and Oxygen (Fig. 3). These microbes could be photosynthetic ones, such as algae or cyanobacteria, or the fermentative anaerobic bacteria using their enzymes to split the water molecule. Then, the various steps for utilising the bio-catalytically liberated energies could also include their capture, purification, storage and use in the fuel cells or elsewhere. Such motors could power future flying vehicles, for instance.
Biohydrogen could be converted and reacted into other gaseous fuels, such as methanol or ammonia. Besides in the aviation industries, they could be applied for maritime, industrial fuels, etc. Hydrogen gas can be coupled with biogas methane, thus forming hythane. If Carbon dioxide is simultaneously emitted in this reaction, it could be separated from biohydrogen and used for greenhouses, where it is a precious raw material for plant growth.
Return to the roots of industrial biotechnology
In 1904, one of the founders of the industrial fermentation, Chaim Weizmann, became a lecturer at the University of Manchester. His method for the microbiological production of acetone was piloted in London in 1915. He used Clostridium acetobutylicum (the Weizmann organism) to produce acetone, butanol, ethanol and hydrogen gas (Fig. 4). Later on, in 1939, in Helsinki, a Dutch microbiologist, A.J. Kluyver took for the first time up the potential of microorganisms to assimilate Carbon dioxide. - What an opportunity for climate-friendly bio-based production and sequestration of carbon-containing molecules, substances, polymers, etc.! - We have also proven that the generation of Carbon dioxide significantly boosts the onset of microbiological or bioprocess reactions (Hakalehto and Hänninen 2012, Gaseous CO2 signal initiate growth of butyric acid producing Clostridium butyricum both in pure culture and in mixed cultures with Lactobacillus brevis, in the Canadian Journal of Microbiology). The same phenomenon was also documented for the Weizmann bacterium (Hakalehto 2015, Enhanced microbial process in the sustainable fuel production. In: Jinyue, Y (ed.), Handbook of clean energy systems, by JR Wiley & Sons).
Upstream and downstream in biotechnology
The former term designates in microbial biotechnology the production of valuable chemicals or gases by biological organisms, whereas downstreaming means the collection, purification and concentration of these biorefinery products into applicable forms. This is a well-studied field nowadays, but more research and development is always needed to boost the applications. And, as Professor Malcolm D. Lilly often stated during his most excellent bioengineering lectures in 1984-5 at the University College London: "Downstream processing is a losing game", meaning that it is impossible to reach perfection or complete recovery of the produced bio-based (or other) products in the industries. On the contrary, there are some losses at every step of that effort. But as developers, both scientific and societal, we should ensure that we could end up as victorious as possible.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
• Elias Hakalehto, PhD, Adjunct Professor in the Universities of Helsinki and Eastern Finland, Microbiologist and Biotechnologist, CEO of Finnoflag Oy, Vice President of the International Society of Environmental Indicators.
• Tarmo Humppi, PhD, Principal Scientist, Chemist, Retired from the Finnish Defence Research Agency.
Text and images: Elias Hakalehto and Tarmo Humppi
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