DECARBONISING – HERE’S WHY THAT’S NOT WHAT WE’RE DOING.

In a recent interview published in That National, IBioIC CEO Roger Kilburn said that he dislikes the word ‘decarbonising’, because it’s misleading. Biotechnology in this context is rather about finding sustainable, alternative sources of carbon for the chemical industry to use instead of petrochemicals.

Such alternatives are likely to come from plants, using short-cycle carbon; carbon which is part of a relatively short cycle of use and storage (atmospheric CO2 - photosynthesis – burial of carbon in sediments – erosion and exposure of carbon-bearing sediments – respiration – atmospheric CO2) as opposed to long-cycle carbon which involves slower process taking thousands or millions of years to produce coal, oil or natural gas.

Short-cycle carbon can be followed throughout its cycle, so although the cycle is not ‘closed’, it is manageable and doesn’t involve accumulated impact on the wider environment.

Most of our fuels, energy, chemicals and pharmaceuticals come from petrochemicals, but biotechnology has the capacity to use sustainable feedstocks to produce the same, similar or better materials, chemicals and energy.

Such sustainable feedstocks might be lignocellulosic biomass, although there remains an issue of efficient processing and availability. Another source might be  one-carbon gases or inorganics coupled with a renewable energy input – eg overcapacity built into renewable electricity supply - to support microbial CO2 fixation obtained sustainably from waste streams.

So what does the chemical industry actually use all this carbon for, again? The list is long: cosmetics, toiletries, medicines, industrial and household detergents, computers, cars, construction materials, paint, clothes and fuels, to name only a few.

The use of fossil fuels in these processes will ultimately stop, either because they’ve become so scarce that their cost is prohibitive or more likely, that Governments legislate that we pay the full life cycle cost of using fossil fuels rather than the supply-side cost which is currently the case. So finding sustainable alternative sources of carbon is a major priority before either of those scenarios happen.

All of this is intended to demonstrate that we need to focus on controlling and managing our carbon sourcing and use, and managing that use sensibly, rather than ‘decarbonising’.