A is for Algae: a bioeconomy glossary

Bioeconomy jargon can be confusing at the best of times, tripping up even those familiar with the sector. Here we run down what common keywords mean.


Algae: Algae is an up-and-coming feedstock in the bioeconomy. Many believe it is a potentially more sustainable source of raw materials for chemicals than land biomass. This is because they are much more resource-efficient, growing more biomass more quickly on fewer inputs.


There are many species of industrially useful algae ranging from microscopic organisms to macroscopic seaweeds. Each has different chemical properties meaning different species or genera are suitable for distinct applications and industries.


Still, scaling algae cultivation at the industrial scales required will demand sustainability due diligence. Algae may be resource efficient but large projects may still have a distorting impact on the environment, especially if the algae is grown in open seawater.


Bioeconomy: The bioeconomy refers to all economic activities that depend on using or producing biological raw materials. This could range from a laboratory startup that genetically customises microorganisms for industrial use or a small fishing crew selling to local markets.


Generally, however, when policymakers refer to the bioeconomy, they are often specifically referring to scaled higher-value activities as opposed to agricultural production.


In the higher-value bioeconomy, biological materials are processed to make more complex products for consumers or industry. These biobased goods are often meant to be more sustainable than petroleum-based materials or chemicals.


However, higher-value segments of the bioeconomy will always rely to some extent on primary industries like agriculture and fisheries. This is because the latter involves managing and cultivating large pools of biological raw materials that the more advanced segments of the bioeconomy depend on.


Bio-based: indicating a material or chemical made of processed biomass.


Biodegradable: A biodegradable material is one that breaks down through the action of microorganisms that convert it to water, carbon dioxide, biomass, and methane.


This is very different from a ‘degradable’ substance, which only breaks down into smaller pieces without being assimilated by microorganisms.


All biomass is biodegradable since all organic matter decays. However, not all biobased products are biodegradable. We see this with certain biobased plastics. Even though they come from plants, the plant biomass gets processed in a way that makes them indistinguishable from their petroleum counterparts.


Lack of biodegradability means polyethylene derived from sugarcane, biobased PE, biobased PET and biobased PE are just as harmful as ordinary petrochemical plastics if they reach landfill.


Biodegradability can be a feature of biobased products, particularly among the emerging generation of biobased materials and products that are more focused on circularity.


Biofuels: Biofuels today are mostly made from crops like corn and sugarcane. These are designed to replace diesel and petrol in vehicles. Proponents claim they are carbon neutral because the feedstock crops absorb carbon dioxide as they grow and photosynthesise.


Conventional biofuels are made from crops like corn and sugarcane. Of all the higher-value bioeconomy industries, this may be the biggest and most mature globally.


However, major sustainability concerns about crop-based biofuels have led to efforts to extract fuels efficiently from less resource-intensive sources like algae or waste byproducts. So far, these more sustainable biofuels have not scaled.


Read more on biofuels and sustainability here.


Biomass: Any materials that are biological in origin. A key feature of biomass is that it can biodegrade.


Biomass is often used interchangeably with feedstock in the discourse around the bioeconomy However, feedstock has a more specific meaning of being usable raw material inputs for industry.


While biomass is sometimes also used in this way, the term can also have a more general meaning. Biologists for example often use it to refer to any plant or animal matter regardless of whether they are economically useful: crops for human consumption or rare species conserved in a nature reserve count equally.


In discussions around the bioeconomy, the term biomass can also mix these two meanings, referring to the total stock of renewable materials in a specific area or category that could potentially be industrial feedstock but may not, due to sustainability or other reasons.


Bioplastics: Plastics are a subset of polymers and bio-based plastics are plastics made from biomass. Typically, raw biomass is first processed into a bio-polymer, which is then turned into a bio-plastic.


Biopolymer: polymers are composed of repeating chains of atoms or molecules and can be made either from biological materials or from hydrocarbons. Some examples of biological polymers are polysaccharides, cellulose, and proteins.


Biorefinery: biorefineries are plants that process biological feedstock into fuels, materials or chemicals. They are a generic name for the factories of the higher-value bioeconomy.


Circularity: The idea of circularity is to keep all material inputs in the economy in use for as long as possible. This cuts back on the need to continually extract more new raw materials and limits the accumulation of discarded waste in the environment.


A circular bioeconomy is one where all waste from manufacturing processes gets used as inputs for higher value products. Any product within the circular bioeconomy can be reworked to use in another application once it comes to the end of its life.


Read more on the circular bioeconomy here.


Compostable: Compostable and biodegradable often get confused and are very similar. A compostable material is always a biodegradable one but it must also satisfy certain additional criteria.


Different countries have specific legal standards for what each of these terms mean. However, there is general consensus that one feature of a compostable material is that it breaks down into a substance that could be added to a plant compost heap without negatively impacting its safety or quality.


Another criteria for compostability is the speed at which it biodegrades. Some biodegradable materials will break down but only after a very long period of time. However, most legal definitions for compostability insist that a compostable material must break down to a certain degree within a specified window of time.


Drop-in replacement: a biobased chemical or material that a manufacturer can literally ‘drop-in’ to their manufacturing processes and machines in place of a petroleum-based chemical or material.


This is usually only possible when the biobased is indistinguishable structurally from the petroleum-based chemicals it is meant to replace.


Being a drop-in is usually a desirable trait since it lowers the cost for manufacturers switching to the biobased product.


Feedstock: feedstock means any material input for a manufacturing process. In the context of the bioeconomy, this feedstock will be biological and biodegradable – algae, wood or food waste all count.


Industrial biotechnology (white biotechnology or bio-manufacturing): An umbrella term for any biotechnology that is used to make chemicals, materials or energy at scale. The biotechnology at work could be enzymes, fermentation, or biocatalysis. Industrial biotechnology is meant to be more resource efficient and less environmentally damaging than synthetic or mechanical processes.


Life cycle assessment: A life cycle assessment (LCA) is a method for measuring the environmental impacts of a process or a supply chain. It is used to ascertain the carbon emissions or ecological footprint of any product, be it biobased or not. A comprehensive LCA will start from the moment raw materials are extracted and end at the processes for managing or recycling the product once it has reached the end of its working life.


Precision fermentation: Precision fermentation is a way of mass producing biobased chemicals with bacteria.


Cheese and beer making rely on similar principles. These foodstuffs are produced when microorganisms eat sugars and metabolise them into tasty compounds.


Precision fermentation builds on this traditional food fermentation. It involves custom-altering microorganisms so they churn out specific kinds of chemicals, whether for human consumption or industrial manufacturing.


Secondary woody biomass: Secondary woody biomass can be a useful and abundant feedstock in the bioeconomy. They are the byproducts of forestry or construction (think sawdust) or post-consumer waste in the form of furniture.


Secondary woody biomass is important to emerging ideas around how to make the bioeconomy more sustainable.


The bioeconomy uses renewable resources but this does not mean they are limitless. For example, growing agricultural crops for feedstock takes up land and emits carbon. Bioeconomy actors are now trying to limit farmed crops as raw materials for industry.


Secondary woody biomass on the other hand demands few additional resources in order to create because the material is already being produced as a byproduct of existing industrial processes.


One issue is that there are more and less sustainable sources of secondary woody biomass. For example, decaying wood has important functions ecologically, providing nutrients back into the ground. Removing too much of this from forestry plantations can make the site less sustainable and more reliant on outside inputs.