Biotech companies of the future will reuse each other’s residual products

Environment and sustainability 1. jun 2021 2 min Professor Krist V. Gernaey Written by Sabina Askholm Larsen

How is the green transition progressing in the biotechnology industry in Denmark? What is the research and commercial potential for working systematically to use residual products from one company as a resource for another? The Forskningsfortællinger podcast (in Danish) examines this more closely.

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In the town of Kalundborg, 100 km west of Copenhagen, several companies have joined forces to reduce the climate footprint from their industrial production through Kalundborg Symbiosis, which was established in 1972 as the world’s first industrial symbiosis with a circular approach to production. The Symbiosis currently has 12 partners, including private and public companies and the education sector.

One partner in the Symbiosis is Novo Nordisk A/S, which has large production facilities in Kalundborg producing insulin and the drug component glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1).

“We scan each other’s residual streams and then we make a match to see whether anything can be reused elsewhere,” explains Michael Hallgren, Senior Vice President and Head of Production, Novo Nordisk Kalundborg and Chair, Kalundborg Symbiosis.

The Symbiosis is working on a major project investigating the possibility of reusing surplus heat from industry.

“We are currently considering whether all the surplus heat produced by the various companies in Kalundborg, which today is just released into the air in cooling towers, can be collected in one place and reused for heating homes with cooling water returning to industry. This enables the creation of a closed system in which, instead of using groundwater or surface water in the cooling towers, we can use the heat in the water and then get the cold water back and reuse it in industry,” adds Michael Hallgren. 

Exploiting only 30–35% of our green transition potential

Partnerships are required, such as Kalundborg Symbiosis, which focuses systematically on making production more circular and climate-friendly. Fully exploiting the green transition potential of biotech companies in Denmark still has a long way to go.

This is the message from Krist Gernaey, Professor of Industrial Fermentation Technology at the Department of Chemical Engineering, Technical University of Denmark. He estimates that Denmark’s biotech industry is only exploiting 30–35% of its overall green transition potential.

Krist Gernaey gives an example of a research project in which he was involved focusing on using residual products from one type of production for other products. In this example, the residual product was keratin from abattoirs, which is present in nails, hair and hooves.

“Until now, keratin has typically been thermally treated, but this destroys the proteins in keratin and eliminates the remaining nutritional value. We have instead tried to develop a process with a microorganism producing certain enzymes that can break down keratin into amino acids. The amino acids can then be used in fish feed. So we can take a raw material that has been very difficult to process and try to transform it into a product that has utility value for a completely different industry,” explains Krist Gernaey, who thinks that the symbiosis mindset can be an effective way to exploit more of the green transition potential in the biotech industry. But this requires rethinking infrastructure and the market mechanisms of companies.

According to Krist Gernaey, if the symbiosis mindset can be adopted, production companies but also more broadly society as a whole can make considerable progress in the green transition. He is confident that those who will help to shape the production companies of the future will adopt this circular mindset.

“This also means that some young people may be inspired to think radically and develop the processes we need to live off in 20 or 40 years. Developing new things takes time,” concludes Krist Gernaey.

Podcast guests

  • Krist Gernaey, Professor of industrial Fermentation Technology, Department of Chemical Engineering, Technical University of Denmark and Head of the Process and Systems Engineering Center (PROCYS)
  • Stine Gry Roland, Head of Communications and Public Affairs, Novo Nordisk Kalundborg
  • Michael Hallgren, Senior Vice President and Head of Production, Novo Nordisk Kalundborg and Chair, Kalundborg Symbiosis

The Novo Nordisk Foundation has awarded DKK 65 million to the Helix Lab project that will strengthen collaboration between research, education and industry in Kalundborg. Novo Nordisk A/S and Novozymes A/S have contributed the remainder of the DKK 120 million awarded for establishing Helix Lab. From 2022, Helix Lab will be home to MSc students from universities in Denmark and abroad and the Kalundborg Symbiosis secretariat. Krist Gernaey is the Chair of the Board of Helix Lab. Michael Hallgren is a member of the Board.

Professor in industrial fermentation technology ("The Novozymes professor") at the Department of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering since 2013. Head...

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