Accelerated assessment of the environmental sustainability of biobased products

Environment and sustainability 30. apr 2024 3 min Tenure Track Researcher Samir Meramo Written by Kristian Sjøgren

Researchers must constantly consider whether new technology and supposedly sustainable solutions, including within biotechnology, are actually sustainable and whether they are more sustainable than the technology they may replace. Now researchers have developed an algorithm to automatically determine how sustainable new biobased products are in an early development phase.

Biotechnology is expected to contribute in the transition to a more sustainable world.

For example, enzymes can transform agricultural residues into replacement products for fossil-based materials, and biobased products can replace current products that are least sustainable.

Developing new biobased solutions requires knowing whether they are actually more sustainable than the ones they replace. For example, replacing a fossil-based product with a biobased product that uses one hectare of land to produce one litre per year makes no sense.

Researchers have now developed a new algorithm that can rapidly and automatically assess the environmental sustainability of biobased products.

“Part of our work is conducting life-cycle assessments and determining how new innovations or biotechnology developed at the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Biosustainability will affect the world. Researchers need to know how sustainable or unsustainable their products are, but life-cycle assessment takes time and resources. We have automated this, enabling more rapid decision-making at early stages of development – when a product can still be changed,” explains a researcher involved in developing the new algorithm, Samir Meramo, Tenure Track Researcher, Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Biosustainability, Technical University of Denmark, Kongens Lyngby.

The algorithm for conducting life-cycle assessment has been published in Bioresource Technology.

Sustainable solutions are rarely free

Replacing old technologies with new ones involves trade-offs in decision-making.

In biotechnology, the goal may be to replace a product requiring fossil resources with something made from yeast cells in large tanks, which reduces the carbon footprint and could be more sustainable. However, this is not always straightforward, since bioprocesses commonly use glucose as feedstock to grow the yeast cells, which could require the expansion of agricultural land.

Knowing whether this trade-off is sustainable is important before the technology develops too far.

“All products and services from both industry and academia should undergo life-cycle assessment under the European Commission’s recommendations and other guidelines. However, as more and more products are developed, this task increases, and extensive assessment takes a long time. My colleagues and I conduct these assessments every day, but we are overwhelmed by the scope and workflow, and we need to be able to do this more rapidly,” says Samir Meramo.

Rapidly revealing whether a product is sustainable

Samir Meramo and colleagues therefore developed an algorithm that automates the entire process. The algorithm requires many input parameters from the laboratory, but it can then very rapidly generate considerable data on how sustainable a product being developed really is.

Input data can include the concentration of the product and what it needs to grow, such as glucose, and how much water is required per unit to make the product. Some biotechnological processes are very water intensive, and this affects their sustainability.

The output comprises data on sustainability, such as how much CO2 is emitted to make a unit of the product and how much land is used to grow the feedstock that produces the biobased product.

“One goal could be replacing beef with a lab-grown substitute. Our algorithm can assess the sustainability of replacing the beef with lab-grown protein and compare it with the beef. We can conduct life-cycle assessment at the early stages of the process before the product is developed to the point of no return,” explains Samir Meramo.

Requires further development

In developing the algorithm, the researchers evaluated two case studies to test its capabilities and relevance to both academia and industry.

The case studies assessed succinic acid and polylactic acid and found that the global warming potential corresponds to 5.46 kg of CO2 emitted to produce 1 kg of succinic acid and 3.82 kg of CO2 for 1 kg of polylactic acid.

The land used was 1.26 m2-years (1 m2 for 1 year) for succinic acid and 0.74 m2-years for polylactic acid.

In theory, the researchers could then compare these figures with those for the technologies or resources the new biobased products replace.

“The algorithm enables us to conduct 5–10 life-cycle assessments in the time we currently take to do one manually. In addition to being able to assess an individual biobased product and characterising whether product A is more sustainable than product B, the algorithm can also calculate whether products A and B are sustainable enough in relation to the planetary boundaries, which defines the absolute limit values below which the Earth’s population can thrive without doing irreparable damage to the planet,” says Samir Meramo.

He elaborates that the researchers have made the algorithm available so that everyone can not only use it but also improve or adapt it to suit their individual requirements.

The researchers continue to work on improving their algorithm so that it will include even more relevant parameters for sustainability.

“The goal is to develop a large toolbox for calculating sustainability. This applies not only in relation to climate change, land use and water use but also in relation to economic and social sustainability. We are working on developing tools that will assess these,” concludes Samir Meramo.

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