The biosubstitution of suitable, less harmful alternatives for many of today’s polluting substances or materials is a major potential avenue for the environmentally beneficial application of biotechnology. The question of biofuels and the major renewable contribution which organised, large-scale biomass utilisa-tion could make to energy demands is examined in some detail and will not, therefore be repeated here. The biological production of polymers, likewise, features in the same section on integrated biotechnology and, though clearly distinctly germane to the present discussion, will also not appear in this consideration. However, the other major use of mineral oils, as lubricants, is an excellent case study of the opportunities, and obstacles, surrounding biotech substitutes. Biodegradable alternatives to traditional lubricating oils have existed for some time, but in many ways they exemplify the pressures which work against novel biological products.
Typically, most of the barriers which they must overcome are nontechnical. The pollution of many inland and coastal waters around the world is a well-appreciated environmental problem and wider use of these nontoxic, readily biodegradable alternatives products could make a huge difference. The main obstacles to wider market acceptance of the current generation of alternative lubricants are neither performance based, nor rooted in industrial conservatism. Cost is a major issue, as biolubricants are around twice as expensive as their conventional equivalents, while for some more specialist formulations the dif-ference is significantly greater. Though, inevitably, users need to be convinced of the deliverable commercial benefits, the potential market is enormous. The petrochemical industry has sought to meet the growing demand for more envi-ronmentally friendly products by developing biodegradable lubricants based on crude oil. However, with the agricultural sector, particularly throughout Europe, being encouraged to grow nonfood crops commercially, there is a clear opportu-nity for a sizeable vegetable oil industry to develop, though the attitude of heavy industry will prove crucial.
While there is no denying the burgeoning interest in biolubricants, the actual machinery to be lubricated is extremely expensive, and enforced downtime can be very costly. Understandably as a result, few equipment operators are willing to risk trying these new, substitute oils, as original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are seldom willing to guarantee their performance, not least because vegetable products are often wrongly viewed as inferior to traditional oils.
Not all biosubstitutions need be the result of lengthy chemical or biochemical syn-thesis or processing and far simpler forms of biological production may provide major environmental benefits. The production of biomass fuels for direct com-bustion under short rotation coppicing management, described, is one example. The use of what have been termed ‘eco-building materials’ formed from hemp, hay, straw and flax and then compressed, as an ecological alternative to conventional materials in the construction industry, is another.
Traditional building approaches have a number of broadly environmental prob-lems. Adequate soundproofing, particularly in home or work settings where traffic, industrial or other noises are a major intrusive nuisance can be difficult or costly to achieve for many standard materials. Walls made from eco-materials have been found to be particularly effective at sound suppression in a variety of applications, including airports, largely due to a combination of the intrinsic natural properties of the raw materials and the compression involved in their fabrication. In a number of trials of these materials, principally in Austria, where they originated, eco-walls have consistently been shown to provide significant improvements in the quality of living and working conditions. In addition, con-struction and demolition waste, consisting of concrete rubble, timber fragments, brick shards and the like, poses a considerable disposal problem for the indus-try, particularly with increasingly stringent environmental regulation and rising storage and landfill costs. Though various recycling initiatives and professional codes of practice have helped ease the situation, there is an obvious advan-tage in a relatively inexpensive, lightweight and sustainable material which is truly biodegradable. At present, the use of this technology has been limited to small-scale demonstrations, though wider uptake is currently being promoted through the European Union’s Innovation Relay Centre network. The appeal of this, and other biological materials production methods for use in construction, the automotive and aerospace industries is clear, but it is very early days in their development. How successful they will ultimately prove to be remains to be seen.
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