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Bioeconomy: the new industrial revolution. An interview with Lucia Gardossi – Part 1

Bioeconomy: the new industrial revolution. An interview with Lucia Gardossi – Part 1

Using renewable resources from land, sea and agricultural or food waste to produce food, materials and energy in a sustainable way, without resorting to fossil fuels.

This is the challenge launched by bioeconomy, the macro-sector that is emerging as a new model of development, able to reconcile environmental, social and economic growth issues. On the occasion of the IFIB 2017 conference, Lucia Gardossi, University of Trieste, talked to us about the potential offered by the bioeconomy and the opportunities that our country must be able to seize to take part in this new “industrial revolution”.

Professor Gardossi, what is the impact of the bioeconomy at European and Italian level?

The bioeconomy includes sectors ranging from primary production – such as agriculture and fisheries – to energy and the manufacturing industry. The combination of these sectors means a turnover of about 2,000 billion euro per year in Europe, with 22 million workers and 9% of the workforce. At Italian level, the entire sector reached a turnover of 250 billion euro in 2015, with about 1.7 million employees. A very important element is the fact that the bioeconomy is strongly tied to the local environments and tends to enhance the resources coming from rural and peripheral areas. Encouraging this synergy between the rural system and the Italian industrial system is essential for the development of the Country, through the lever of technological innovation provided by chemistry and biotechnology.

With regard to chemistry, Italy has always been one of the leading countries in this field internationally. Is it so also for “green” chemistry?

Italy has always had a great tradition in the chemical sector, only think of the Nobel Prize winner Giulio Natta. Even today, in the chemistry of organic products Italy is a world leader with many virtuous examples, such as the MATER-BI products by Novamont, which represent the progenitors of the renewable plastics with which biodegradable shopping bags and bioplastic products for catering are made today. The raw materials for the production of bioplastics come from renewable sources such as biomass. An example is given by some thistle plants – grown on marginal and semi-arid land in Sardinia. The bioeconomy, therefore, proposes a new concept, that of “biorefinery”, which allows us to obtain high added-value products from a renewable resource that is not in competition with traditional farming, also enhancing the value of the agricultural sector. At the same time, the production “chain” generated by the biorefinery makes it possible to exploit all the carbon present in the biomass to obtain renewable and sustainable chemical compounds of different nature, such as lubricants, cosmetics, animal feed, etc.

Are there other types of “biorefineries” in our country?

There are now examples in Italy and there are important projects for the conversion of old industrial sites into biorefineries for the production of biodegradable products from renewable sources. In addition to Novamont, I could mention the first plant in the world for the production of second-generation bioethanol on an industrial scale in Crescentino, near Vercelli, or the first industrial plant for the production of butanediol – a chemical element used to produce plastics – from the fermentation of sugars in Bottrighe, near Rovigo. These examples show that chemistry, often viewed with suspicion, provides, together with biotechnology, fertile ground for innovation, which new generations should learn to look at to seize the best opportunities for success.

Is it optimistic to think of Italy as a global leader in this new “industrial revolution”?
We have the technological and industrial potential and the first political visions are beginning to take shape, as demonstrated by the Italian Bioeconomy Strategy, which is considered an important reference document also at European level. Its definition also involved the SPRING National Technology Cluster (included in the network of National Technology Clusters promoted by the Ministry of Education, University and Research-MIUR, Ed.), representing the essential Italian connection point between the various actors of green chemistry, favouring the transition to this turning point in Italian bioindustry. The European Union expects investment in research to result in 130,000 new jobs and 45 billion euro of added value for bioeconomy related production activities. By investing in research, technology and human capital, we will have the opportunity to play a leading role in this new revolution.

End of part 1