What is biotechnology and why can it be used in the energy sector?

17 March, 2022

The introduction into the energy system of renewable sources has become a priority in order to meet the climate neutrality targets set by the European Union for 2050. 

In this race towards a “zero emissions” continent, the energy sector is using biotechnology, among others, as a strong ally. This branch of biology, which is applied in various sectors such as medicine or food, seeks to apply technological fundamentals to living organisms and biological systems so that products and processes can be created or modified. 

Accordingly, it is possible, for example, to increase the resistance of some plants to certain pests, improve the production yield of some crops, make the treatment of liquid waste more efficient or create in vitro tissues to treat injuries, among many other applications.

In the field of energy, biotechnology can help replace traditional fuels by using biomass as an energy source. Biomass uses organic matter such as crops, agricultural waste or cellulose, among others, to obtain heat and electricity through different processes, for example, combustion or the use of gases generated by their decomposition. 

In this way, biotechnology makes it possible to generate fuels with a neutral balance of emissions. But production on a large enough scale to cover all needs, allowing the energy transition to become real, remains a challenge.

Biotechnology makes it possible to generate emission-neutral fuels

In addition, the processes of obtaining fuels through biotechnology also encounter some prejudices in social, economic and environmental terms that make this vision controversial. And they highlight the need for transformation to be sustainable in the broadest sense of the word: socially just, economically viable and environmentally responsible.


The five main benefits of using biotechnology to create fuels

The use of biotechnology to create fuels that provide a sustainable energy alternative has five major benefits:

1) Reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and elimination of toxic emissions with respect to traditional fuels.

2) Reduced dependence on traditional fuels.

3) Viable income alternative for the primary sector and potential driver of rural development.

4) Reduction of contaminants in soil and water (with the ensuing benefit to human and ecosystem health).

5) Possibilities of energy recovery of waste and waste reduction.

Biotechnology applied to the energy sector requires crops that must be managed ethically to avoid negative consequences at local level, with global repercussions. Thus, one of the most important ways to avoid these undesirable effects is the promotion of a new generation of cellulose-derived fuels. These biofuels will make it possible to meet this challenge in a more sustainable way and, at the same time, diversify the energy supply. 

We need to create specialised labour and promote investment projects in partnership with public administrations and private institutions

Considered as second generation biofuels, their interest lies in obtaining ethanol from cellulose, i.e. from products with no food uses (firewood, wood chips, sawdust, etc.), plants grown on marginal lands (of low fertility or low value) or products that require less care (avoiding the need to use environmentally harmful fertilisers).

This context demonstrates the importance of innovation in driving the energy transition. We need to train specialised labour, promote investment projects in partnership with public administrations and private institutions, and create pilot tests that make it possible to achieve technological deployment on a larger scale.