Apr 14, 2022 - Technology

Engineering an economy built by biology

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A new report urges the U.S. to invest billions of dollars in developing a workforce and infrastructure to support an economy built on biologically engineered and produced materials, medicines, fuel and food.

Why it matters: Proponents of developing the "bioeconomy" say that creating biologically based products will reduce manufacturing's reliance on fossil fuels and bolster supply chains, while creating jobs in the process.

How it works: Instead of engineering petroleum into chemicals, fuels and materials, manufacturers would use microbes, biomass and other biological resources as feedstocks, catalysts and other tools.

  • The goal is to use biological and genetic engineering to make new materials and food sources, improve existing processes for generating others, and create new, less costly and more environmentally friendly sources of raw materials.

What they're saying: "[T]he bioeconomy is going to have an extraordinary impact on human society in the decades to come," says Eric Braverman, CEO of Schmidt Futures, a philanthropic initiative founded by Eric and Wendy Schmidt that issued the report and focuses on supporting and convening people working on science and technology problems.

  • "We talk a lot about artificial intelligence and other types of technology that occupy so much of the public imagination, but artificial intelligence isn't the only story," he says.
  • While the U.S. is a leader in the science that underpins biotechnology, it risks falling behind in the world's shift to the bioeconomy because the country hasn't developed a workforce or infrastructure to support it, according to the report, which was shared first with Axios.

The big picture: The report, which builds on preliminary work from a task force convened last year by Schmidt Futures, recommends that the U.S. government invest at least $1.1 billion in research and development over five years and another $1.2 billion over two years to build facilities and infrastructure to test scaling up production of bio-based products.

  • "We have a lot of promising technologies and not enough infrastructure to allow those technologies to mature," says Mary Maxon, a senior fellow at Schmidt Futures who co-leads its bioeconomy program.
  • Small companies with promising technologies "need to partner with other countries who have invested in the infrastructure that we don't have here," she says.

Details: The report emphasizes training and developing a workforce for the bioeconomy, which would require engineers, technicians and others — who wouldn't necessarily need four-year degrees.

  • Part of the bioeconomy could focus on using the large amount of logging debris, agricultural plant waste and other biomass already being generated in the U.S. to create different bio-based products.
  • The U.S. has the capacity to produce about 1 billion tons of biomass a year without affecting food production or risking land degradation, according to the report. That could be used to produce "25% of the nation's liquid transportation fuels and 50 billion pounds of bio-based chemicals," while reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 450 million tons each year.
  • It could also support 1.1 million jobs throughout the country, wherever biomass is available, per the report.

Yes, but: To reap those benefits, scientists will first have to solve the challenge of extracting sugar and other compounds from wood and other plant material — besides corn and sugar beets, which are already used to create ethanol and other chemicals — so they can be used as feedstocks. Then the processes would have to be scaled up.

  • The report also points to a need for more research to understand the environmental impact and potential risks of biotechnology products and how to mitigate them if demand grows for bio-based products.

What to watch: The report calls for creating a national bioeconomy strategy coordinated and housed in the U.S. Department of Commerce.

  • Other countries — including India and China, along with the European Union — have strategies that they've been funding and updating.
  • Ten years ago, the Obama administration released a National Bioeconomy Blueprint, but it hasn't translated into a long-term, coordinated vision, Maxon says.

Go deeper: How to grow the economy with biology

Go deeper