Science Policy

Three Insights From the Advanced Bioeconomy Leadership Conference

04.04.23 | 4 min read | Text by Nazish Jeffery

The Advanced Bioeconomy Leadership Conference (ABLC), hosted by The Digest, convened leaders in and around the biofuels, biomaterial, and agriculture industries to discuss key issues that the “circular bioeconomy” currently faces. The circular bioeconomy refers to the concept that biotechnology, bioproduction, machine learning and artificial intelligence is used to create an economic system where waste products are repurposed to create high impact products. 

After two and a half days of summits, mini-conferences and intense networking, here are our key insights gleaned from the conference.

Count All Carbon

Decarbonization and the goal of net zero emissions are undoubtedly crucial in the fight against the effects of climate change. These goals are also currently driving the biofuels, biomanufacturing, and agricultural sectors of industry. Production of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), polymers using biowaste, and low-carbon feedstocks are some examples of how these industries are attempting to achieve decarbonization and net zero emissions. 

“Count all the carbon” was the key phrase said throughout the entire conference. However, industry leaders acknowledged that it is easier said than done. There are currently many different ways to measure carbon intensities (CI), with the Argonne National Laboratory GREET model, which uses a life-cycle analysis approach, being the current favorite. However, all models – including GREET –, have nuances and differences resulting in different CI scores that vary based on methodology. This makes calculating CI scores confusing, which has huge ramifications for projects trying to determine eligibility for CI-score-based financial incentives. One possible solution for the U.S. government, possibly through NIST (in collaboration with the Department of Energy), would be to create guidelines around which model of calculation should be used, or to standardize one model across the board (taking internationally agreed-upon guidelines into account). Furthermore, the government can weigh in on the conversation of whether a price on carbon would be the better incentive tool to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. 

However, while the debate over how to count all the carbon persists, there appears to be broad consensus that to achieve net zero emissions, it will be important for technology to stay agnostic. Industry leaders agreed: it doesn’t matter what the technology is, as long as it helps to bring us toward decarbonization. They also suggested that if we were to focus on one technology, achieving decarbonization, and net zero emissions would likely become exponentially harder.

Scale-up & Feedstocks

Another prominent theme that persisted throughout the conference was the need for scale-up and the need for feedstocks. Currently, the Department of Energy (DOE) has issued a grand challenge to the biofuels industry in order to accelerate the domestic production of SAF in order to be able to provide 3 billion gallons per year by 2030 and 35 billion gallons per year by 2050. Major innovation and increased capacity is going to be needed in this sector in order to meet the goals of the U.S. government. However, the biofuels industry is not the only industry facing the issue of scale-up. Many biomanufacturing and fermentation companies agree that while upstream processing can be done easily, the challenge really arises with the downstream process when they try to scale. For both the biofuels and biomanufacturing industry, the creation of infrastructure is going to be vital in order for scale-up to be truly achieved within the U.S.

Furthermore, scale-up will also require the development of new and multi-use feedstocks. Increased production will necessitate more feedstocks – while some current feedstocks can be repurposed or reengineered for multi-use, brand new feedstocks will need to be developed as well in order to fulfill demand in the future. Innovation in this area will be key for the longevity of industries within the bioeconomy. Currently, the Bioenergy Technologies Office within the DOE is working on the fourth version of the Billion Ton report for 2023. The newest version of the report will discuss future feedstocks such as wood, waste, agricultural residue, and biomass crops such as algae. Furthermore they are also taking into consideration the use of wildfire waste and land resources in order to understand the full scope of the available feedstocks in the U.S.

De-risk Biofuels & Biomanufacturing

In order for innovation to occur within the bioeconomy, it was agreed that de-risking the biofuels and biomanufacturing industries would be needed in the sectors for long-term financial viability. Startup companies face the “Valley of Death”, or the point where startups transition from prototype to commercially available product. This transition period is impeded by different factors–scale-up being one such factor–but financing can also play a large role in this transition as well. Investors tend to be leery of startup companies due to the high risk involved traversing the valley. It was generally agreed that the U.S. government should provide guidance to the DOE (which finances a lot of startups) as to what loans they should underwrite in order to de-risk the industry and allow for novel innovations to flourish within the sector. Tax credits are another under-utilized tool–largely due to the complexity and lack of guidance behind them. Conference-goers agreed this is something the U.S. government should address and provide guidance on.

To further de-risk the industries, it was generally recommended that the supply chain sector  and the infrastructure involved to support the U.S. supply chain needs to be evaluated, revamped, and increased. On March 22nd, 2023, the Office of Science and Technology Policy published the “Bold Goals for U.S. Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing”, in which, one of the goals for the Department of Commerce, was addressing the innovation needed to create a resilient supply chain. 

It is unsurprising that the key themes found at the ABLC 2023 underscore the need for innovation, proper financing, infrastructure, and sustainability. These are the elements needed in order to drive the U.S. bioeconomy forward. While the U.S. bioeconomy faces many challenges ahead, industry, thought, academic, and other leaders are laser-focused on finding solutions.