From energy to fashion, the future is bio (tech). An interview with Lucia Gardossi-Part 2
How will we produce energy (and clothes) in the future? How will we heat our homes and fuel our cars? Fossil fuels will not probably run out, but biotechnology is looking elsewhere, trying to create renewable energy sources and raw materials from biomass and carbon dioxide. After helping us discover the bioeconomy and its potential for development, Lucia Gardossi, University of Trieste, tells us how biotechnology and the bioeconomy could change our future.
Professor Gardossi, for a long time oil has shaped the world’s geopolitics. What will happen in the near future, with new biotechnologies?
The new global geopolitics of energy is witnessing a deglobalization trend: we are moving towards a regional and macro-regional planning of energy production and distribution, with major global differences. The United States, for example, is continuing to invest in the exploitation of shale gas, Asian countries exploit their extensive coal resources and vegetable oil, while Europe is directing its policies towards the use of biomass and carbon dioxide, which represents a challenge for all European countries, to be addressed with the weapons of science and technology.
Will oil run out then?
Oil sources will probably never run out. In the future, however, there will no longer be this “oil-centric” view: the entry of renewable sources will reduce oil consumption and, as a result, oil will become more and more expensive. We will probably see a breaking up of this monopoly in favour of other energy sources, in a mechanism that benefits competitiveness.
How will Europe and Italy produce energy in a sustainable way?
One of the sustainable energy sources is biomass, such as organic waste and agricultural and forestry residues. The question of these years has been whether we can find enough biomass to produce energy and replace 30% of fossil fuels by 2030, as requested by the EU. Today we know that this objective can be achieved, even if it means new technology and innovation challenges. Another major challenge, which is one of the hot topics of biotech today, is to use carbon dioxide as a raw material to obtain high value-added products. Here, too, we are on the right track, although it will probably take some time before we see these technologies on the market.
Will our cars also be powered by renewable energy sources?
The technologies already exist and second-generation bioethanol is already a reality; but policies are needed to support this change. In the United States and Brazil, biorefineries for bioethanol production have been used for decades already but they produce this compound from noble carbon sources, such as maize or sugar cane, cultivated with large amounts of water or with oil-based fertilizers, and therefore not in a sustainable way. The new challenge is to produce second-generation bioethanol in a sustainable way and without competing with agricultural resources. In this regard, the Italian Mossi Ghisolfi group has been the first in the world to use, on an industrial scale, a very advanced technology to obtain second-generation bioethanol from the common giant cane, Arundo donax. Italy, therefore, plays a leading role at European level in this sector.
And what about food waste? Can it also be used to produce raw materials?
I’ll answer with the example of Orange Fiber, the startup based on an idea by a Sicilian student who has developed a method to extract cellulose from citrus waste, creating the world’s first sustainable fabric. This innovation has been seen by Salvatore Ferragamo as an opportunity to create high value-added clothes and, recently, these two Italian companies have established a partnership for a new fashion collection. We must not forget that product sensitivity has become an element that greatly influences consumers, who are ready to pay more. All top players, from chemistry to energy, are moving in this direction. The potential for innovation offered by the bio-economy is great and should not be missed.