THE Centre for Process Innovation - CPI - at Wilton is gaining international recognition, with the opening of a new £12m biotechnology facility.
SARAH JUDD discovers how this latest development is putting the Tees Valley on the map, while helping us all lower our carbon footprint.
FROM biological washing powder to wine, the National Industrial Biotechnology Facility (NIBF) now open at the Wilton Centre, is helping to reduce our dependance on chemicals featuring in a whole range of
Biotechnology is an emerging field that will use the products of nature to produce environmentally friendly manufacturing methods.
It heralds a new dawn for the future growth and prosperity of the process industries - the North-east and UK’s leading wealth creator.
The NIBF facility means cleaner, greener alternatives to the chemicals in the products we rely on and also, the growth of a major industry here in the Tees Valley, providing a boost to the region’s economy and job opportunities on Teesside.
The NIBF will provide a solution for increasingly environmentally conscious consumers, who still rely on the convenience of products like stay-fresh bread and antibiotics.
Dr Chris Dowle, director of advanced processing at CPI, said: “This facility will benefit companies by allowing them to embrace, test and subsequently apply sustainable manufacturing and energy production.
“Using industrial biotechnology for modern manufacturing will create reductions in millions of tonnes of waste and energy and more efficient use of the world’s resources.”
The facility allows a wide range of companies, from small and medium-sized enterprises to large corporations, to test cleaner manufacturing processes on a small scale, before heavy investment in the new technology.
The result is the NIBF is reinvesting the skills of many chemical sector organisations on Teesside in a new growth industry.
Nigel Perry, chief executive of CPI, said: “On Teesside, we have a very significant quantity of skills in the chemicals sector. We are capable and we have Wilton, a world-class facility.
“With the kind of resources and expertise we have, setting up the facility on Teesside was the obvious choice - a no-brainer.”
Mr Perry added the centre would help put Teesside on the map as a centre for green technology, while creating jobs and protecting existing industries which have seen a decline in employee numbers in recent years.
He said: “This development is good for Teesside because it brings together a great number of skilled people, making the development an attractive prospect to industry.
“Teesside will attract investment from companies all over the world with this new facility.”
The centre has already created six jobs, but there is plenty of potential for more employment opportunities, with a growing number of companies all over the world seeking greener ways to manufacture their products.
Mr Perry said: “The potential for jobs depends on how successful we are.
“We would expect to increase the number of new jobs to ten shortly, but the biggest impact will come if we have influence on investment decisions and if we bring a company to the Tees Valley because of the facilities we have here. That would be significant.
“In the future, 20% of industry is going to have to be biological, meaning one in five jobs could be in this sector.
“But as the public becomes more aware of its demands on the planets resources, that figure may well turn out to be an underestimate.”
Another key area of NIBF activity is the development of biorefineries, which would use specially grown crops or waste material to produce energy, fuel and heat instead of burning fossil fuels.
CPI is working with a UK research institute to take waste biomass and convert it to bioenergy and a demonstrator unit is under construction at the NIBF.
Mr Perry said: “We have companies like Sabic here on Teesside, so there is a great interest in petrochemicals and oil.
“The development of other products which are not quite so dependant on oil allows some existing investment in the area to be protected.”
The NIBF will help firms replace outmoded traditional chemical processing techniques with cleaner, greener, less wasteful methods - ensuring the region is at the forefront of the green revolution.
It provides an open access trial and development centre for companies, providing them with the evidence to prove a business case to potential backers.
Regional development agency One NorthEast has provided £4.3m of funding to the NIBF, while the Northern Way, a collaboration of three regional development agencies, has supported the facility with a £3m investment.
Margaret Fay, who chairs One NorthEast, opened the facility.
She said: “I think it is absolutely feasible for the Tees Valley to be at the forefront of green innovation.
“If this works, using natural enzymes for products like biological washing powder, we won’t need to use chemicals, and reducing our reliance on chemicals worldwide and using natural products instead is what we have got to be doing.”
Mrs Fay added she was glad regional development agency One NorthEast’s significant investment in the Centre for Process Innovation was paying off, with the NIBF just the latest example of its success.
She said: “A number of years ago, we created the Centre for Process Innovation because we could see we needed to have a shift in direction.
“In this region, we couldn’t really continue in the traditional industries of coal mining and ship building and had to be looking for new industries and new processes.
“We put a great deal of investment into CPI. These things don’t happen overnight, but three or four years down the line we are seeing successes.”
The NIBF already has orders stacked up of people and businesses waiting to use the facility, with the staff who know how to run it.
Dr Dowle confirmed the facility already had a range of businesses on board from large corporations like Glaxo SmithKline, to Small and Medium-sized Enterprises.
He said: “Although we are only just officially opening, we have already been working on early projects for some months now,” he added.
“Glaxo SmithKline donated the equipment and are working with us on a pharmaceuticals project using marine biology, and we have already had a tremendous amount of interest from small companies like Ingenza and Aquapharm.”
So as well as helping existing companies to manufacture their everyday products, from biological resources, the new NIBF facility could also result in the start-up of new companies creating greener alternatives to everything from cosmetics to plastic drinks bottles. Dr Dowle said: “The centre will help manufacturing processes become safer cleaner and greener than much traditional chemical processing, affecting every facet of everyday life.
“We are looking to make things in the way the world is going to have to make things in the future.”
Biotechnology is expected to be a $300bn global market by 2030, and Mr Perry is hopeful up to half of the industry could be established in the North-east.
“That means there is the potential for the industry in the Tees Valley to be worth about $8bn by that time,” he said.
How it works
The NIBF works by using nature’s catalysts - enzymes - to use biotransformations (fermentation is an example of biotransformation) to produce molecules which are then used to make everything from chemicals, pharmaceuticals and polymers to colorants, pesticides and biodiesel.
NIBF represents £12m of investment. It has been funded by regional development agency One NorthEast and the Northern Way initiative.
The site is the only open access biotechnology centre in the UK and is acting as a catalyst to the regeneration of the Tees Valley’s chemical industry.
Biorefinery work (green energy) is set to lead the way in Europe, helping replace traditional chemical processes with cleaner, greener, less wasteful methods.
What does it mean to the man and woman in the street?
A much lower impact on the environ- ment and the world’s resources to manufacture essential everyday products such as cosmetics, fuels, nutraceuticals and pharmaceuticals.
How many jobs will be created?
This could protect and increase the UK sector by thousands.
What will NIBF mean for the prosperity of the North-east?
A conservative estimate is the region’s economy could benefit in the medium to long term by many hundreds of millions of pounds.
Is the work at NIBF ground-breaking?
The ‘gene to kilo concept’ (basically conception to mass production) is unique in the world.
What are the advantages of producing chemicals in this way?
It is better for the environment, doesn’t rely so heavily on oil, produces less waste and uses less energy.
What products are we talking about?
The products are used in every facet of daily life, in cleaning materials, in cosmetics, fuels, food and agriculture.
What does ‘genes to kilo mean’?
Working from genes in cells defining the production of molecules of interest at a cellular level and then upscaling it to produce marketable quantities of these molecules.
What is biocatalysis?
In nature, catalysts in cells (from micro organisms to humans) convert molecules to other essential molecules. Biocatalysis involves taking these catalysts, or enzymes, and exploiting them to produce molecules we want. One area of growing application is in fine chemicals which may then be converted to pharmaceuticals.
What are biorefineries?
Taking non-food crops and other ‘biomass’ and using enzymes to produce molecules of interest and energy to displace oil being used to make petrochemicals in an oil refinery.