Sustainable Biotechnology

Bio-inspired processes will have a major impact on the challenges faced by a global society in the 21st century, including those associated with environmental sustainability.

The employment of biocatalysts in industrial processes is expected to boost the sustainable production of chemicals, materials and fuels from renewable resources.
We are translating academic research into novel industrially-usable platforms for the sustainable production of scientifically improved enzymes, bio-based chemicals and other biomaterials by exploiting new analytical and bio-based technologies. Our disruptive innovations will lead to the development of unique and sustainable new products, derived from wastes and by-products, and demonstrating their cost-efficient and energy-saving production using novel biomanufacturing technologies. To ensure our research has a real-world value we collaborate with industry. Our industrial partners have included Unilever, GSK, Ingenza, Diageo, BlueSkyBio, FujiFilm Diosynth Biotechnologies, Leica Biosystems, Industrial Nature, SEM, BioSep, Scottish Forestry, AMT.

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Biologically Upcycling Metals

Metals have a finite supply, thus metal scarcity and supply security have become worldwide issues. We have to ensure that we do not drain important resources by prioritising the desires of the present over the needs of the future.

To solve such a global challenge we need to move to a circular, more sustainable economy where we use the resources we have more wisely. One of the founding principles of a circular economy is that waste is an unused feedstock; that organic and inorganic components can be engineered to fit within a materials cycle, by the design, engineering and re-purposing of waste streams.
Certain bacteria have the ability to reduce metal cations and form precipitates of zero-valence, pure metals, as part of their survival mechanism to defend against toxic levels of metal cations. Using Synthetic Biology tools and techniques, alongside iterative design, build and test cycles we aim to enhance, manipulate and standardise the biomanufacture of these nanosize precipitates as high value products. Ultimately producing engineered microbes with the ability to upcycle critical metal ions from waste streams into high value nanoparticles with a range of exciting applications.

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Recycling Lithium-ion Batteries

With the proliferation of fully electric cars forecast to rise from 1 in 200 today, to 1 in 12 by 2030, and 9 in 10 by 2050 in the UK, the largest share of a vehicle's carbon footprint is predicted to shift from production to end of life.

The automotive sector is one of the most successful manufacturing industries in the UK, with annual car production exceeding 1.7 million cars. Automotive manufacturing generated an estimated turnover of £77.5 billion in 2016, up 9% on 2015, and is estimated to have added £21.5 billion in value to the UK economy in 2016.
It is now estimated that by 2040, 1 million electric vehicles will reach end of life each year, putting the annual mass of batteries to be recycled in the range of 0.5M tonnes, a significant fraction of the 22M tonnes, which according to the Office of National Statistics, was the total amount of waste generated by households in 2015. Effective recycling of this 0.5M tonnes of Li-ion automotive batteries, plus whatever additional use comes from battery-based energy storage, is critical not only from the environmental point of view, but also because of the near absence of key battery materials like cobalt, graphite, lithium, manganese, nickel etc. from the UK. The cost of not recycling these materials is effectively doubled as these materials, if not recycled, will have to be continuously imported, raising possible strategic questions.
The ReLIB project brings together a uniquely cross-disciplinary team of researchers from renowned research organisations with established links to international partners across the globe. It comprises leading researchers in sensing/gateway testing of batteries, vision recognition, artificial intelligence, autonomous robotic manipulation, magnetic/electrostatic sorting, chemical/biological/pyrometallurgical extraction of metals, materials synthesis and characterisation, LCA, economic modelling and waste legislation. The aim of this ambitious project is to establish the technological, economic and legal infrastructure to make the recycling of 100% of the materials contained in lithium ion batteries from the automotive sector possible. The ReLIB team will tackle the most demanding technical challenges in sensing, gateway testing, robotic sorting, re-use, recycling and characterisation. The processes developed will be quantitatively assessed by specialists in lifecycle, technical and economic assessment. New business models and regulatory frameworks will be examined in the context of the complete, full-cycle value chain.

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Enzymatic Biomass Processing

Increasing global energy consumption is accelerating the rate of fossil fuel depletion. When oil reserves are eventually exhausted the essential by-products produced in refining will no longer be available.

Since these aromatic chemicals are used in many processes including the manufacture of plastics, detergents, fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, paints and synthetic fibres it is vital that alternative sources become available.
Lignin is the 'woody' part of plants and therefore it can be produced sustainably, it is renewable and a natural form of carbon storage. It is a complex polymer made of the aromatic chemical building blocks that are potential replacements for the aforementioned non-renewable aromatic oil-refining by-products.
Our goal is produce low molecular weight aromatic chemical feedstocks from the lignin that is currently a waste product from wood processing and paper manufacturing. We are using synthetic biology to engineer microorganisms capable of enzymatically degrading this waste to provide a new source of aromatic feedstock molecules, securing the supply of these molecules to industry and ensuring society can continue to use the everyday items we all take for granted.
Our collaborators include MetGen, BioSep and Scottish Forestry.

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