The UK’s Bioeconomy Strategy, published two years ago, covers the period up to 2030. Designed to remove our reliance on finite fossil resources, it encourages the use of bioscience and biotechnology to create new solutions in the food, energy, health and, yes, chemical industries. Integral to that is the ‘circular economy’, the green ideal that enshrines recycling and sustainability. HELEN COMPSON investigates.

The phrase is on every industrialist’s lips. The road ahead is indeed circular. But where on earth do you start?

BioVale, a not-for-profit York University spinout dedicated to ensuring the Yorkshire and Humber region is at the heart of our now rapidly expanding bioeconomy, describes the UK as being at the forefront of international efforts.

But, as chief executive Dr Sarah Hickingbottom, above, acknowledges, “It’s all about commercialising those ideas.

“The UK has four bio-clusters, each looking at future-proofing in the bioeconomy, but that’s easier said than done.”

First, there is the age-old challenge inherent in scaling up chemical compounds and the lack of uniformity that usually brings in its wake.

And secondly, every industry attempting to change track is doing so amidst a complex network of long-established supply chains and logistics. That is one of the biggest hurdles of all.

Nonetheless, there is a strong argument for going back to basics, for starting again where possible, she said.

“In accordance with UN sustainability goals, our government is pushing for Net Zero, but it should be about more than that – it should also be about reimagining chemistry to strip out the toxicity of processes.

“The chemicals industry is huge and one of the challenges with green chemicals is the sheer economics of scale required.

“Another is that the mainstream chemicals industry doesn’t tend to think in a big enough way, in that we live in a world that is a gilded petroleum thought cage.

“From the minute we wake up in the morning, our day is full of it.”

The 6000 different types of product petroleum is used in ranges from the upholstery on our beds and chairs to the materials in the clothes we wear, the toiletries we put on our skins, the central heating that keeps us warm and the fuel that powers our vehicles. It is everywhere.

Dr Hickingbottom said: “Nowadays, if you are using DMF or some other non-environmentally benign solvent, it’s not because that is the perfect solvent for the process, but because at the point of development – several decades ago – it was the best we could make do with in the economics of scale.

“However, the tool box of biotechnologies we have today means we could go back to chemical reaction and devise an environmentally benign product that is even better chemical-wise.”

An organic chemist by training herself, she knew we had the ability now to combine organic chemistry with catalysts and the chemistry achieved with biotechnology to change the way we do things.

“Yes, the challenges are massive, but we have the ability to go back to first chemical principles, go back to the drawing board, and reimagine better solutions.”

What is done within the four arenas of municipal solid waste, unavoidable waste, gases and plastics is key to achieving a circular economy.

Acting as a sort of marriage broker between innovators and entrepreneurs, Biovale is intent on helping to create the new, commercial-scale supply chains necessary.

Dr Hickingbottom cites the example of food waste, and particularly unavoidable food waste, which can be turned into feedstocks for other supply chains.

Where there was a will, there was a way, and that had to be applied to municipal solid waste (MSW), she said. “That’s the stuff in your black bin, collected by the council.

“When the metals and plastics have been removed, you are left with organic municipal solid waste and that’s a very rich feedstock that can be circular.

“We can ferment it or turn it into a syn(thetic) gas in exactly the same way as a crop.

“It would be amazing if we could use the country’s rubbish to create the chemicals of the future!”

More than just a pipe dream, the first steps have already been taken in that direction.

In the UK, a company called Wilson Bio-Chemical Ltd has established a pilot plant in Dunnington, near York, designed to turn waste into high-value chemicals.

Game-changing technology, in what is a micro-autoclave fibre production plant, diverts unsorted MSW away from landfill and towards reprocessing as a feedstock for the biofuel and biochemical markets.

Similarly, Circa Group, which has worked with York University’s Green Chemicals Centre of Excellence, is busy turning tonnes of renewable and otherwise underused non-food cellulose into Levoglucosenone, a valuable platform molecule.

In turn, Levoglucosenone feeds into an emerging portfolio of sustainable products, such as bio-solvents, flavours and bio-polymers for pharmaceutical, agrichemical, new materials and clean technology companies.

Dr Hickingbottom said: “We have access to feedstocks and platform chemicals that were never viable before – in the laboratory and in pilot tests, we can do almost anything we want.

“Certainly, there are big challenges in taking them outside, not least in terms of scale, but we do have the ability, now.”