A need and an opportunity – this is what the bioeconomy is for the government of Spain, that, in March 2016, was the first of the big Mediterranean countries to present its own national strategy (The Spanish Bioeconomy – 2030 Horizon). This was a necessary means for moving the country in the direction of becoming a society which is less dependent on non-renewable resources from fossil fuels “whose consumption is accelerating the climate change process which is putting the future of our planet at risk.” It is also an opportunity to stimulate “a process for consolidating economic growth,” where new technologies are considered competitiveness instruments for Spanish companies.
“The main objective – Isabel García Tejerina, Spanish Minister of Agriculture, Food and the Environment, wrote in the strategy introduction – is to construct a bioeconomy as an essential part of the country’s economic activities, with innovation that generates know-how. We need the public and private sector to collaborate closely and greater interaction between the Spanish and scientific and technological systems.”
The role of the agri-food sector
The main players in the Spanish bioeconomy strategy are the agricultural, food and forestry sectors, that are considered the prime beneficiaries of economic development based on the use of organic resources. On the one hand, there are the raw material suppliers that do not have to compete with the food industry. On the other, there are the recipients of the majority of the biotechnological innovation developed.
Their importance in the Iberian country’s productive system is demonstrated through data supplied by the Ministry of Agriculture, which show that the agricultural sector represented 2.5% of GDP in 2013 and generated a gross value added of €21,707 billion, giving work to 740,000 people. The food industry represented 2.7% of the GDP and generated a value added of €28.448 billion, employing 480,000 workers in over 28,000 companies. In total, the agri-food sector made up 17% of national exports.
Furthermore, forestry was worth €762 million, the fishing and aquafarming sector over a billion Euros, the paper industry €3.3 billion, the wood and cork industry around €1.9 billion.
The Spanish strategy sets the challenge of maintaining primary production sustainability in economic, social and environmental terms. All this, Madrid believes, will be possible, improving productive efficiency and organisational and logistical processes, through technologies and innovation. Food discards produced by agriculture and the food industry must become raw materials for producing new biomaterials and bioenergies.
According to the Spanish Renewable Energy Association, in the 2007-2014 period, the average annual GDP generated by the bioenergies (including biomass for electricity generation) and biofuels for transport sector was 3.562 billion Euros. In the same period, an annual average of 47,880 direct and indirect jobs were created.
The Abengoa Bioenergy case
The Abengoa Bioenergy case has certainly left a shadow line on the sector. At a stone’s throw from bankruptcy, it is decommissioning all its plants across the world and managing to avoid chapter 11 of the US bankruptcy law through serious debt restructuring.
At the end of last year, its subsidiary Abengoa Bioenergy Biomass of Kansas was forced to sell its cellulosic plant in Hugoton to Synata Bio for 48.5 million dollars. The sale encompassed the cellulosic ethanol production establishment with a 25-million-gallon-a-year capacity, the co-generation plant and 400 acres of land. The intellectual property contained in the process was, however, excluded along with its license agreements with Abengoa Bioenergy New Technologies. Back in 2011, the U.S. Department of Energy had loaned the company 134 million dollars for the plant’s construction.
In August 2016, Green Plains Inc. paid out 237 billion dollars in cash to get its hands on three U.S. Abengoa Bioenergy ethanol plants: in Madison, Illinois; in Mount Vernon, Indiana, and in York, Nebraska, totalling a productive capacity of 236 million gallons a year.
That is not all. The same Green Plains also bought the Ravenna plant in Nebraska and the Colwich plant in Kansas, while the Portales plant in New Mexico went to Natural Chem Group.
In Europe, the Abengoa Bioenergía San Roque S.A. biodiesel production plant sited in Cádiz, southern Spain, was purchased for eight million Euros by Cepsa (Compañía Española de Petróleos S.A.U.), already recipient of 100% of the biodiesel produced using soya, rapeseed and palm oil. Last June, Belgium’s Alcogroup took over the Europoort plant in Rotterdam (The Netherlands). The La Coruña, Salamanca and Cartagena establishments are currently up for sale.
In France, the negotiations for the transfer of the Laqc bioethanol plant in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques (Nouvelle-Aquitaine) are near conclusion. The potential buyers of the biorefinery, which employs 70 workers and produces 250 million litres a year, are OCEOL, a group of the region’s main agrarian cooperatives and companies, and a European investment fund.
Biochemistry, made in Spain
In the green chemistry field, the main Spanish biorefinery belongs to Succinity GmbH, the joint-venture created in August 2013 by Dutch company Corbion Purac, world leader in lactic acid and derivative production, and German chemistry giant BASF. Its plant, located at the Corbion Purac site, in Montmeló, Catalonia, produces biobased succinic acid for the global market on a commercial scale and has an annual capacity of 10,000 tonnes.
“We have analysed the life cycle – refers the company with headquarters in Düsseldorf, Germany – and proven how the carbon footprint of ‘Succinity’ biobased succinic acid is over 60% lower than that of fossil-based succinic acid.”
In 2004, the U.S. Department of Energy included succinic acid in its list of the twelve best chemical intermediates obtainable from biomass. There is, thus, no lack of competition in terms of industrial players: from BioAmber in Canada (Sarnia), supported by Mitsui and Lanxess, to Reverdia, DSM and Roquette’s joint-venture, in Italy (Cassano Spinola). Its applications are numerous: as raw material for bioplastics, upholstery, adhesives, sealants and personal hygiene products. Furthermore, bio-succinic acid is also used for foodstuffs and flavourings as an acidifying agent and preservative with raw plant-based materials.
The “Succinity” industrial process is based on raw renewable materials, which, thanks to proprietary microorganism Basfia succiniciproducens, are flexibly used in an efficient closed-cycle process which generates no particular waste streams.
Alongside the BASF-Corbion Purac joint-venture, a series of small and medium-sized Spanish enterprises are focusing their work on developing a new innovative chemistry based on the use of biotechnologies and the transformation of agri-food discards.
One of the most significant cases is that of Neol Bio. The Andalusian company led by Javier Velasco, with headquarters in Granada, has developed a microorganism capable of transforming agrarian discards into new bioproducts (above all, bioplastics and biolubricants). “Just in Almerìa – Neol Bio reveals – agriculture produces two million tonnes of discards, worth 30 million Euros a year, which can be reused through biotechnologies.”
Last November, the Andalusian biotechnological company signed a collaboration agreement with the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, in order to produce fatty alcohols from lignocellulosic sugars. The objective: to develop liquid biofuels for transport at competitive costs. In 2015, Neol Bio was also selected in two tenders for realising a biorefinery in Puertollano (ClaMber project), in the Castilla-La Mancha region, which will produce high value-added biofuels from agricultural discards. The total investment comes to 20 million Euros, four/fifths of which made available by the European Regional Development Fund.
According to ASEBIO, the Spanish Association of Biotech companies, Spain is a world leader in the industrial biotechnology field. The Spanish Statistical Office (INE) censused 2,831 biotech companies with around 173,000 workers, 9,135 of whom employed in research and development.
These include Alkol Biotech, a genetic engineering company focusing on the development of new plant varieties adapted to the needs of the bioindustry market. “Our research regards new crops as raw material for producing biofuels, bioplastics and other bioproducts” explains Al Costa, CEO of the Spanish company. “We aim to improve crops in order to allow for the sustainable production of any bio-based product.” EUnergyCane is a new variety of sugar cane, a hybrid grown in the fields of Motril, Andalusia. It guarantees very high resistance against viruses and parasites, higher yields in terms of sugar and fibre, as well as greater resistance to chemical agents. The company, led by Costa, aims to create a variety of sugar cane which is able to grow in the coldest and driest climates.
Even Spanish petrol and natural gas giant, Repsol, one of the ten most important petrol companies in the world, has made biofuels central to its sustainable energy development plan. In 2010, 1.2 million tonnes of biodiesel and 273,000 tonnes of bioethanol were sold (most recent data available supplied by the company listed on the Madrid stock exchange). “We select – Repsol illustrates – the biofuels which are most suited to the market and we add them to petrol and diesel in the highest proportions permitted by the legislation of each country.”
In order to stimulate the new renewable energies business, in 2010, the Nnew energies department was created, allowing the Spanish company to launch second-generation biofuels. Consequently came the newco Kuosol, an equal partnership joint-venture with Mexican group Kuo, boasting investments of 80 million dollars for the development of bioenergies from the cultivation of Jatropha curcas, an inedible oleaginous plant with a high oil content cultivated on 10,000 hectares of land in Yucatan.
The new advanced biofuels, developed in Repsol’s Technology Center, have been tested industrially in the Spanish Puertollano and Cartagena refineries. The process also allows for the development of a co-product, biopropane, a gas whose characteristics are identical to propane, but which is 100% renewable.
One of the first uses of second-generation biofuels produced by Repsol was on the Iberia Madrid-Barcelona flight operated by an Airbus A320 in 2011, where a product mixed with conventional Jet A1 fuel and a biofuel derived from camelina were used allowing for a 20% reduction in greenhouse gases.
Repsol is also studying the use of algae as a raw material for biofuel production. This project has led to a 20% shareholding in Alga Energy, a leading enterprise in the microalgae research field, which boasts Iberdrola as shareholder. The latter, the biggest producer of electricity and natural gas in Spain, was selected by the European Commission last November from the six small and medium-sized European enterprises with the highest growth potential. Alga Energy manages a biofuel from microalgae production plant with a capacity of a million litres a year, at Arcos de la Frontera, close to Cadice. The establishment, part of the CO2Algaefix programme co-funded by the European Commission, covers an area of 10,000 metres squared and aims for an annual production of 100 tonnes of dry biomass.
The Company’s second plant, that also involves Spain’s airport manager, Aena, and airline company Iberia, stands near to Madrid’s Barajas airport. Biofuels are also produced here through the use of particular microalgae with photosynthetic capabilities which are rich in fatty acids (features which allow for using less water and land in plant production). These are experimented on the Spanish airline company’s flights. In addition to biofuel production, all the technologies used until now to capture CO2 produced by airports are tested in order to improve them.
Microalgae are the first link in the aquatic food chain. Without them there would be no life. In addition to providing us with oxygen through photosynthesis, they can now help us to face many of the challenges connected to climate change and world population growth. Given their composition which is rich in protein, carbohydrates and fat, microalgae are the source of many products which are beneficial in a vast range of sectors, such as human nutrition, animal feed, agriculture, aquaculture and cosmetics. Furthermore, the international scientific community agrees on the fact that, in the near future, microalgae will be competitive for generating clean energy and second-generation biofuels, thus contributing to sustainable development in environmental and economic terms. This is because:
- they are a very productive, limitless natural resource;
- they allow for daily harvesting;
- they do not need fertile land and are not in competition with human nutrition;
- they grow in sea, fresh, salty and waste water;
- they allow for greater CO2 reduction (up to 2 kg for every kg of biomass produced).
For a country with unemployment rates settled at 18.4% at the end of 2016 (Eurostat data), the bioeconomy is a great opportunity for conciliating economic growth, creating skilled jobs and environmental sustainability. In order to fully realise its potential, the Spanish government wants to obtain the complete support of public opinion. That is why the strategy assigns a fundamental role to accurate information and to training.
“Society – it says – must identify and understand the value added generated by the development of this strategy for our economy, and be clearly committed to using our agricultural areas which are useful for providing food for human and animal consumption. We must develop other value chains based on the use of technologies for transforming organic matter into bioproducts and bioenergies, ensuring that all the biomass generated is exploited in full.” “The creation of a bioeconomy market” must be promoted “by supporting the bioproduct demand, with, above all, according to that provided for in the action plan, a policy of green public tenders, with relative labelling and standardising systems.”
Behind the coordination of all the actions necessary for implementing the national strategy is the monitoring group created by the Interministerial Council of Science, Technology and Innovation Policy, which unites representatives of the involved ministries, productive sectors, the scientific community and civil community. The bioeconomy really is an opportunity that Spain does not want to miss out on.
The Spanish Bioeconomy – 2030 Horizon, tinyurl.com/hwq5ebe
Succinity GmbH, www.succinity.com
Alga Energy, www.algaenergy.es/en
Interview with Jose Manuel Gonzalez, Centre for the Development of Industrial Technology (CDTI) under the Spanish Ministry of Economy, Industry and Competitiveness
By M. B.
We Have Made the Strategy: Now We Must Make the Market
The Spanish strategy on the bioeconomy is directed by the Ministry of the Economy, Industry and Competitiveness, particularly by the Secretary of State for Research, Development and Innovation. One of the members of the “Steering Committee” is Jose Manuel Gonzalez from the Centre for the Development of Industrial Technology (CDTI) who is also the Spanish representative for the bioeconomy in Horizon 2020 and in Bio-based Industries Joint Undertaking.
Renewable Matter interviewed him.
What is the Spanish bioeconomy’s distinctive feature?
“Undoubtedly, the strategic role played by the agribusiness and the food production sector which represents over 5.3% of GDP, 7% of working population population, more than 900.000 farms and 30,000 companies and almost 20% of exports in Spain. Not only that: the sector is characterized by a high rate of innovation, based on excellent basic and applied research. This is proved by the excellent results achieved by the Spanish projects within the European bids.”
The agribusiness is the backbone, but what role does the biobased chemistry play?
“In Spain, the chemical sector is also strongly linked to the agribusiness. One of the main enterprise is Fertiberia which is the Spanish leader in the field of fertilizers and one of the main players at European level. But there are many other companies which also deserve our attention. Its role in the bioeconomy has multiple functions: it contributes to improve efficiency in the agricultural production and develops new innovative biofertilizers, thus reducing the use of fossil raw materials. In Spain, the whole chemical industry is strongly committed to researching alternative sources to oil, able to place on the market biobased products, sustainable from all points of view. This is why the European Commission selected Andalusia as one of the six model demonstrations regions to lead the way towards sustainable chemical production in Europe (the others being Groningen-Drenthe, the Netherlands, Kosice, Slovakia, Scotland, South-Eastern Irland and Wallonia, Belgium, editor’s note).”
Repsol too is committed to developing biofuels...
“Of course. In Spain, Repsol produces a considerable amount of biofuels and carries out advanced research in the field of biofuels using both macro- and micro-algae. They could become very competitive in this field. But it seems to me that, even at European level, over the last period there has been a slowdown, also due to the low price of oil hindering the research of alternative fuels.”
The difficult situation of Abengoa Bioenergy does not help either. What is your opinion on that?
“I believe that Abengoa Bioenergy’s bankrupcy is very unfortunate. The company had a well-established international leadership, based on cutting-edge technologies. The latter remain, though. Their expertise in processing different sources of biomass is impresive. I think that the use of urban solid waste as raw material could be able to give new impetus.”
The Spanish strategy explicitly refers to the need to support demand. Are you considering a green procurement system?
“The need to support the input on the market of biobased products is at the heart of the debate started within a workgroup created by the Ministry of Economy, Industry and Competiveness. It is crucial to make society understand exactly what the bioeconomy is in order to create greater awareness. We must also involve the private sector, the university and research community because, to develop this meta-sector, we also need new graduate profiles and new educational courses in line with the needs from the private sector. Some well-recognised universities have already created a curriculum focused on the bioeconomy. Very soon, they could also start a Master’s Degree in Bioeconomy.
“These topics were at the heart of the Bioeconomy Steering Committee meeting that took place on 28th February in Madrid, where the Action Plan for 2017 was also discussed together with the setting up of the Bioeconomy Observatory.
“In order to accelerate the entrance in the market of the biobased products, some tools are going to be further considered, such as a green procurement system accompanied by the implementation of standards and labelling.”
Who are going to be the members of the Observatory?
“All the stakeholders within the Bioeconomy businesses, the research world, the Ministry of Economy, Industry and Competiveness (Secretary of State for Research, Development and Innovation), the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Environment, the Ministry of Energy, Tourism and the Digital Agenda and the Regions too. The latter play a pivotal role in the implementation of the national bioeconomy strategy. At ministerial level, we asked the 17 autonomous regions to come up with specific bioeconomy strategies. Andalusia, Estremadura, Castilla-La Mancha and Valencia are already committed to this. While 16 have decided to include the agribusiness sector in their smart specialization strategies.
“Representatives from different organizations will also be included (consumenrs, environment, farmers, financing sector).
“It is the intention of the Steering Committee to set up the Bioeconomy Observatory very soon.”
What role does the Mediterranean play in the Spanish bioeconomy?
“In a water scarcity scenario, there is a need to develop the circular economy and to reinforce the role that biological resources must play on it. For the Mediterranean region it is essential to ensure the sustainable production use and exploitation of the biological resources within the different value chains that make up the Bioeconomy: agriculture and food production, including livestock production, forestry, blue economy, and biobased products and bioenergy. Sustainability must be considered as a whole (people, profitability and planet). Due to the limited water framework in this region, the valorization of waste from diferent sources must contribute to more efficient and sustainable production systems and to generate new jobs, growth and competitiveness of the Bioeconomy sectors.
“The Spanish bioeconomy is mainly focused on agrifoodbusiness but also on fishing, aquaculture and marine research. Research in the field of algae and generally on marine biomass plays a strategic role for the present and future of the bioeconomy in our country. But also in the whole Mediterranean area to restore the right centrality to Southern Europe.”
CDTI – Centro para el Desarrollo Tecnológico Industrial, www.cdti.es
Interview with Isabel Garcia Carneros, Asebio’s Operations Director
By M. B.
The Spanish Way to Biotech
Asebio is the Spanish Association of biotech companies. It representes companies involved in all fields of application of the biotechnology. Renewable Matter interviewed Isabel Garcia Carneros, Operations Director, on the role of industrial biotechnology to boost the bioeconomy.
What is the state of the art of industrial biotechnology in Spain?
“Early Spanish initiatives to promote and encourage the bioeconomy, along with the existence of a developed bioindustry sector, existing market opportunities and an advanced cooperative system have created the optimal environment for our industry to flourish. Progress in the field of biorefineries, research into new production processes and improvements in chain values have allowed us to acquire the necessary knowledge to attain rapid advances, create new technologies for the utilisation of biomass and generate new market niches.
“At the national level, a number of public bodies have aligned themselves with European policies and strategies. A favourable political framework is therefore being created for the establishment of biorefineries and the implementation of the bioeconomy in Spain. For instance, the Secretariat of State for Research, Development and Innovation, part of the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness, with the participation of the industrial, academic and scientific sectors, has published the Spanish Bioeconomy Strategy, which is designed to boost economic activity by improving competitiveness and sustainability in production sectors, promoting and encouraging the development and the practical application of technologies resulting from collaborations between the science-technology system and private Spanish firms. At the core of the Spanish Strategy are the activities of the agriculture, marine, food and forestry industries and the efficient and sustainable use of products, sub-products and all waste produced by them – transforming waste into a new line of bioproducts, including bioenergy, for which industrial biotechnology is essential.
“We should also note that the European Commission (DG GROWTH) selected the project presented by Andalusia to turn the region into a model for research and development of circular economy and industrial symbiosis systems. The objective being to make a more efficient and sustainable use of the resources and raw materials available, such as biomass and waste management.”
What is the role of industrial biotechnology in developing the Spanish bioeconomy?
“Industrial biotechnology provides a great opportunity to solve the current global challenges the international community is facing, offering potential solutions to the growing demand for food, animal feed, fuel and other materials. Industrial biotechnology enables us to develop higher yield solutions for a variety of products, while also reducing environmental impact. By incorporating this technological step forward, new products and production processes can be obtained, turning the so called ‘alternative’ materials or products into economically and environmentally efficient solutions with a wide range of everyday applications, leading to more competitiveness and market share. This helps companies to develop and launch products and processes incorporating an intrinsic innovation value, which is of great relevance when comparing them to traditional competitors.
“In this manner, such tools help to reduce the environmental impact of production processes without reducing efficiency, performance or profitability. The growing use of Industrial Biotechnology in traditional firms allows for the inclusion and application of the technology to mature sectors, improving efficiency and sustainability.”
What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Spanish biotech industry?
“Spain has a wide network of universities and well-known centres of excellence specialised in multiple areas of great importance for biorefineries, such as chemistry, energy and biomass; as well as a lot of industrial infrastructure that has grown exponentially during the past 10 years. The science-technology-private sector triangle is a great hub of knowledge with a long tradition of cooperation, a sure sign of success for the development of a globally integrated system. Moreover, increasing numbers of innovative Spanish biotech firms have internationalised successfully, leading to more international interest in the Spanish biotechnology industry.
“Although in terms of research and academic development, quality is high, not enough knowledge is transformed into industrial products that take such knowledge to the market. It is therefore important to promote the creation of institutes and technology firms that will utilise knowledge, transforming it into a tangible industry asset. The public administration must also support firms by encouraging them to innovate. Access to venture capital and financial markets, as well as strong government support for R&D policy are crucial guarantees when investing in the bioindustry.”
How is biotech innovation supported in Spain?
“As a public institution, the Centre for the Development of Industrial Technology (CDTI) makes a fundamental contribution towards the development of biotechnology in Spain by publicly financing research projects and also through private funding, via specialised biotechnology funds.
“References to the institutional support for the bioeconomy can already be seen. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Environment (MAPAMA) explicitly supports biorefineries through its National Programme for Innovation and Agro-Food and Forestry Research, the National Programme for Rural Development 2014-2020 and the Spanish Bioeconomy Strategy. These programmes support the optimal use of biomass in Spain, providing a solution to technological challenges in the near future.
“Additionally, the Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness launched a number of support mechanisms for R&D, to foment these industries (Spanish Strategy of Science and Technology and Innovation and the National Plan of Scientific and Technical Research and Innovation). The Ministry of Industry, Energy and Tourism (MINETUR) also adopted the objectives set out by the EU Directive on Renewable Energies (2009/28/CE) in its National Action Plan for Renewable Energy (PANERO) 2011-2020. The document lists the objectives that Spain must meet by 2020: 20% of final energy consumption in 2020 must come from a renewable source of energy – and 10% in the case of transport. The ministry also made the reindustrialisation of Spain a fundamental objective, committing itself to developing industries operating closely with biorefineries. Furthermore, we must stress the great interest shown by the various regions of Spain when it comes to revalorising their biomass and establishing Bio-Industries – leading to social, economical and environmental gains in their areas.”
What are the most important clusters for industrial biotechnology and green chemistry?
“As well as Andalusia, there are other stakeholders throughout Spain working on R&D projects in this field, including private sector initiatives, organised with the support of the public administration, as is the case of the CLAMBER project (Castilla-La-Mancha Bio-Economy Region), which is currently underway. This project intends to establish the foundations for the region to become a leader in the field of biomass management research in southern Europe. The project included the development of innovative research projects to transform agricultural residues into added-value products, as well as the construction of a versatile modular pilot biorefinery.”
Is there a biomass availability problem in Spain?
“Spain has a lot of potential when it comes to biomass. This makes for a strong foundation in the development of biorefineries, given that biomass is the raw material from which energy, chemical products and other substances are obtained. We have a large amount of biomass, which is increasing every year, yet is underused. Additionally, Spain has the optimum conditions, both because of its geography and its weather, to produce certain types of biomass. Efforts are also being made to facilitate the use of currently fallow or unproductive land, thereby reenergising rural and industrial areas.
“According to the technical report titled ‘Assessment on the potential of biomass energy,’ which was carried out by the Spanish Institute for Energy Diversification and Saving (IDAE, Evaluacion del Potencial de Energia de la Biomasa), Spain has the potential to produce nearly 40 million tons of agricultural products a year, of which 17.7 MM would be biomass crops and 21.6 MM would be wood biomass. The study also suggests revalorising agrifood waste biomass as well as energy crop biomass.
“Another IDAE internal report has shown that it would be viable (from an agronomical standpoint) to dedicate 50% of currently fallow land – close to 2 Mha – to growing energy crops. The majority of fallow land is non-irrigated land which is currently unused, meaning that, when put to use, it would have no negative impact on food production. Finally, it is important to underscore the importance of farming: it accounts for 79% of agro-industrial biogas production and 67% of the total biogas that could potentially be available in Spain.”
Are there plans for the use of marine biomass?
“At present, in the field of marine biomass (mainly macroalgae) the focus is on continuing with the research to find competitive bioproducts and fuel. Although there are no actual ‘institutional’ plans as such, the scientific community and various research groups, particularly in northern Spain, are very active in this field.”
Asebio – Asociación española de bioempresas, www.asebio.com/en/index.cfm
IDAE – Instituto para la diversificación y ahorro de la energía, www.idae.es
Interview with Javier Velasco Álvarez, CEO of Neol Bio
By M. B.
The Bioeconomy in the Vocabulary of Politics
Javier Velasco Álvarez is the CEO of Neol Bio, one of the most dynamic industrial biotech company in Spain. He is also the Chairman of the Industrial Biotechnology Council at Asebio, the Spanish Association of Bioindustries. In this exclusive interview with Renewable Matter, he talks about the bioeconomy in Spain: its strenghts and weaknesses, the role of society and the measures it needs to take.
Mr Velasco, what are the strengths and weaknesses of the Spanish bioeconomy?
“Spain has a strong food and agricultural sector and a large availability of geographical spaces which can and must make the most of the benefits offered by the bioeconomy, fostering them to the maximum. However, the agricultural activity is conditioned by growing limitations on the availability of water and the need for sustainable management based on science and technology. As result we have productive sectors that are already consolidated, along with others still emerging and developing.
“Besides, Spain has significant capacity to generate relevant know-how in the area of the bioeconomy in public research centers, universities, alongside with companies working in the field and developing very interesting technologies but still – and I think that’s common to other European countries – there is some misalignment between public R&D and the interests of private companies.
“But having said that, in my opinion the main weakness of the Spanish bioeconomy is the lack of large chemical companies that could act as a driving force and final users of the bioproducts generated. And this issue has become worse with the financial problems that Abengoa has recently suffered.”
How has the failure of Abengoa Bioenergy influenced the development of the bioeconomy in Spain?
“Of course the problems that have affected Abengoa Bioenergy have negatively affected the bioeconomy in Spain because this company has been a driving force of the sector leading many R&D and industrial projects (Babilafuente, Hugoton, etc) but I’m genetically optimistic and, as it happens with energy, bioprojects ‘can neither be created nor destroyed; rather, it transforms from one form to another.’ I’m confident that the technologies and, more important, the people behind them, would find other ways to get founding and start again improved by the lessons learned.”
What are the other major players of the Spanish bioeconomy?
“I would say that the companies that are leading the way in bioeconomy in Spain are industrial biotech companies such as Biopolis, Inkemia, Alga Energy and, of course, my company Neol Bio. Some large companies such as Fertiberia in the chemical and fertilizer sector and ENCE (energy, pulp and paper) are also very active in R&D and industrial projects. The large oil and energy companies (Repsol, Cepsa, ENDESA, etc) have participated in R&D projects but in my opinion they should have a more active role.”
Could you explain to us in which sector is your company active?
“The focus of the Company is the development of bioprocesses from residual raw materials specifically for the production of microbial oils and oleochemicals.
“We have developed several bioprocesses for the microbial conversion of agricultural and industrial waste into added-value products. Some of these technologies have been developed for industrial clients whereas others have been developed using internal resources and now form part of the Industrial Property of the Company as patents and know-how.
“The most relevant technology developed by Neol Bio is MicroBiOil®, a platform to produce added-value oils and microbial derived oleochemicals from renewable sources.
“In the field of food ingredients we have developed a bioprocess to obtain DHA-rich oils through the culture of microalgae selected from in the Iberian Peninsula’s ecosystems.”
The national strategy was presented last year. At what stage is its implementation?
“Yes, the ‘The Spanish Bioeconomy Strategy 2030 Horizon’ was presented last year and, although we have some uncertainty due to the political situation, a first action plan was put in place. The best result is that bioeconomy is already in the vocabulary of several Ministries and Regional Authorities and there is an interest in identifying society’s perception of the subject and exchange of opinions with representatives from the productive sectors, consumers, opinion makers, NGOs, etc.”
The strategy gives an important role to society. What is the perception of the bioeconomy by Spanish public opinion?
“Development of a communication strategy with all our social and economic players is an essential element to attaining technological advance and its application to the productive reality and should be a priority in the development of the BioEconomy Strategy.
“According to a recent public perception studies most respondents share an optimistic vision of the potential benefits of the bioeconomy. The reduction of waste and pollution is the potential benefit of bio-based economy identified as most relevant. But many respondents agree that there are a number of important risks that need to be kept in mind when developing the biobased economy: over-exploitation of natural resources and food security both in EU and third countries.
“Spanish Society as a whole must be familiar with the objectives and principles of the economy based on the use of resources of biological origin, its favourable impacts on our surroundings, reducing dependence on fossil resources once the technologies have been adequately evaluated, and also of the new product ranges that will gradually appear on our market and become available to consumers.”
What measures are present in Spain to support the development of the bioeconomy? And what do you think should be implemented in the short term?
“Actions in five specific areas will be taken in pursuit of the operational objectives: 1) innovation by generating knowledge and its application in a business setting; 2) fostering the interaction between the different players involved in the bioeconomy; 3) developing the market for existing products or new products arising from the bioprocess context; 4) promoting the demand by analysing procedures for innovative public procurement and 5) expanding the knowledge of bioeconomy via cooperation and by communicating successes.
“To promote public and private research and company investment in innovation in the area of the bioeconomy funding research projects an important target is to analyse successful public-private collaboration models for generating entrepreneurial innovation (e.g. Bioaster, Novo Nordisk, Wageningen), proposing similar measures applicable to Spain.”
Neol Bio, neolbio.com/en