Manufacturing technologies: bionic business

Ethanol from household waste? That’ll be biomanufacturing, finds Malcolm Wheatley.

It’s not a term that’s yet in widespread usage. But prepare to hear more – possibly a lot more – about biomanufacturing.

For even as many of Britain’s traditional manufacturing industries battle against low-cost competition from overseas, the good news on the biomanufacturing front is that not only are biomanufacturing jobs being created, but that formerly offshored biomanufacturing production is being brought back to the UK.

So what exactly is biomanufacturing? Essentially, a working definition might be ‘the production of compounds using a biological system.’ What sort of compounds? Pharmaceuticals, obviously, but also food ingredients, fuels, and plastics – all of which are fairly fundamental to modern day life.

But while FTSE 100 giants such as AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline need little introduction, newly-promoted FTSE 100 entrant Croda and privately-held Ineos – both built from parts of former British industrial stalwart ICI – are less well known.

Yet each has biomanufacturing processes firmly in place, with GlaxoSmithKline being one biomanufacturing business intent on establishing its next biomanufacturing production facility in the UK, rather than a low-cost overseas economy.

In all, in fact, there are over 250 companies operating in the UK biopharmaceutical bioprocessing sector, which is recognised by the UK government as a key sector of the life sciences. And with the second highest number of biopharmaceuticals in development worldwide, it would seem that the UK is well placed to take a significant share of the market.

“There’s a definite groundswell of interest in biomanufacturing. It’s seen as one of a small number of key areas where the opportunities are very significant” – Yvonne Armitage, Industrial Biotechnology Sector Expert and Knowledge Transfer Manager, The Roslin Institute

Beyond pharma

Yet biopharmaceuticals, don’t forget, are just one sector of several in the biomanufacturing sector. Ineos, for instance, is the world’s largest producer of synthetic and fermentation ethanol, with over 300,000 tonnes produced at the company’s Grangemouth plant.

Ineos’ Bio Ethanol technology, what’s more, efficiently converts a wide range of low cost, organic materials, including household and commercial wastes, into bioethanol for use as a renewable road transport fuel or petrochemical intermediate.

But while the possibilities may be ample, complacency regarding biomanufacturing’s prospects is dangerous, warns Dr Yvonne Armitage, industrial biotechnology sector expert and knowledge transfer manager at the University of Edinburgh’s prestigious Roslin Institute.

She points out that the biosciences knowledge transfer network that she advises is one of 14 such networks explicitly set up by the Technology Strategy Board with the task of securing the longterm future of some of Britain’s most valuable industries.

“As a country, we’re strong in the technology, but the factories often get built elsewhere,” she says. “And that’s worrying, for an industry that’s been officially recognised by the government as an enabling technology.”

Which is where the Biosciences Knowledge Transfer Network, and its twin, the Healthtech and Medicines Knowledge Transfer Network, come in. Delivering knowledge, information, contacts and expert support to help manufacturers make innovation happen, they help biomanufacturing businesses with funding and collaboration opportunities.

“In government, and in industry, there’s a definite groundswell of interest in biomanufacturing at the moment,” sums up Dr Armitage. “Biomanufacturing is seen as one of a small number of key areas where the opportunities are very significant.”