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Biotechnology now has deep penetration in markets like agriculture and pharmaceuticals and Jens Kolind, Vice President of Novozymes explains to BlueTech Research’s Chief Executive Paul O’Callaghan why its role in water is ripe for take-off.

Biotechnology has been used by humanity for thousands of years to make bread, wine, cheese and beer, but only in the last 50 years or so has it been used for industrial purposes. The range of biotech applications is increasing rapidly and is particularly well established in the production of everyday products, from laundry detergents and textiles to animal feed and biofuels, but the take-up in water is now gathering pace.

Novozymes is a Danish company specialising in the use of microbes and enzymes in agricultural and industrial applications. Novozymes’ Vice President Jens Kolind will present a keynote speech on biotechnology trends and its impact on water and the circular economy at BlueTech Forum 2018, which will take place in Vancouver on 6-7 June.

Transforming Industry

Jens Kolind says that biotechnology has already transformed a number of industries and has provided a huge impact in terms of environmental benefits. He believes the water industry is perfectly placed for a “paradigm shift” due to the advantage of having the research behind these advances.

Capturing phosphorus from wastewater for reuse as fertiliser is an obvious example where technology developed in agriculture can be transferred, says Kolind. “Some of the micro-organisms being applied in the agricultural sector, for example those used to enhance the health of plants, can also be applied in the context of water where phosphorous needs to be extracted from the waste stream for reuse.”

He says that on a broad level there are “four pillars” where biotechnology can play a big role in the water industry: nutrients in wastewater, fouling of water treatment systems, energy production and specific pollutants. Each has experience from a parallel sector to learn from.

“In terms of nutrients in wastewater, classical phosphorous and nitrogen recovery and removal, we already have experience from the agricultural sector,” Kolind says. “In dealing with biofilm and fouling of water treatment systems, we have experience from detergents.

“The third area is on the energy side – biogas production and getting value out of the sludge, and we already have a lot of learning in the area from bioenergy development. And last but not least, there’s the targeting of specific pollutants in wastewater and process water, where we draw on microbes and enzymes that can degrade inorganic and organic pollutants such as pesticides.”

Microbial insight

Jens Kolind says that genomic information greatly enhances understanding of microbial communities – known as metagenomics – and will be incredibly important in the water industry. “To give a concrete example regarding wastewater treatment – if you run a biological treatment process, most plant operators today don’t have the understanding of the types of micro-organisms in that big soup of biology working on the process. Using metagenomic technology they can get an understanding of exactly what is in that soup; which micro-organisms are in there and in what proportions.

“They can work out how it compares to other wastewater treatment facilities and how to use that information to add in specific micro-organisms needed to target a specific compound, for example, phosphorous. That capability has the potential to be transformative in the way we look at wastewater treatment plants and generating a step-change in biological treatment of wastewater.”

Kolind says that the cost of this depth and detail of analysis has come down very significantly over the last five years. “If you take a wastewater sample, within one or two days you get information you can act on and see if the microbial community is not functioning in the way that it should, so I think that area is really exciting.”

When it comes to developing new micro-organisms or enzymes that can target specific parameters, such as high COD, or specific compounds, “the toolbox” has expanded quite significantly, Kolind explains.

Robotic screening

“Today we are not only looking at 50 or 100 different enzyme or microbe variants to find the exact micro-organisms or enzyme to target a specific compound. Using robotics we are looking through millions and millions of variants.”

Some observers see the advances in biotechnology as part of the green revolution required for the global agricultural industry to continue feeding the planet’s 6-7 billion people. Water for irrigation, industry and domestic use is also a key requirement of human sustainability.

The question is, are we at the sunset or sunrise in terms of the biotech revolution? Kolind believes that the industrial space for biotech is still in the very early days.

“If you look at the total market for industrial biotechnology, the penetration of biotechnology is still fairly low. In areas like agriculture, pharmaceuticals and bioenergy, where biotechnology plays a very significant role, you still have a good way to go.

“The way Novozymes looks at it, we are still in a very big industry that has a big growth potential and we are not over the blockbuster period yet.”

Jens Kolind will present a keynote speech on trends in biotechnology and its impact on water and the circular economy at BlueTech Forum in Vancouver, Canada on 6-7 June 2018. To register and learn more, visit www.bluetechforum.com.