Sustainable Industry

Bioeconomy as part of the solution to the challenges posed by climate change

Paulo Coutinho, Chief researcher at the SENAI Institute for Innovation in Biosynthetics, discusses the importance of this production model for Brazil’s green transition

The SENAI Innovation Institute Network was specifically created to meet the demand of the domestic industrial sector with a focus on applied research – turning knowledge into practical applications – in the development of new products and solutions that generate business opportunities. The 26 SENAI Innovation Institutes collaborate as a multidisciplinary and complementary network at the national level, including partnerships with the academic sector. The network currently has more than 930 researchers.

Established in 2015, the SENAI Institute for Innovation in Biosynthetics (ISI) plays a prominent role in this domain by developing sustainable industrial chemistry and biotechnology solutions, using both renewable and non-renewable resources to offer new products and processes. The idea is to promote far-reaching integration between the industrial and the academic sectors.

The team of specialists in Biotechnology, Chemical Transformation, Process and Fibers Engineering is led by chemical engineer Paulo Coutinho, who took on the position of Chief Researcher at ISI in April 2022, after having worked for almost seven years as a manager. With a Master’s degree in Chemical Processes and a PhD degree in Innovation Management, Coutinho worked for 33 years in private companies such as Petroflex, Lanxess and Braskem, always in Research & Development (R&D), and was involved in the development of several products now available in the market, with several patents both in Brazil and abroad.

In an interview with Indústria Verde, Coutinho discusses the importance of the bioeconomy – a production model based on the use of biological resources – in the green transition spearheaded by Brazil.

What is the meaning of the bioeconomy for the world right now, and how can it foster a transition to a low-carbon economy in Brazil?

Paulo Coutinho – The bioeconomy is both a potential solution to the challenges posed by climate change and an opportunity to ensure improvements related to ESG – environmental, social and corporate governance aspects.

A recent study by the Brazilian Bio-Innovation Association revealed that the implementation of old and new technologies related to the better use of agro-industry products and residues – associated with improvements intended to reduce the impact on land use and the generation of greenhouse gases in the sector – have the potential to add US$ 400 billion to Brazil’s GDP by 2050 while reducing CO2 emissions by 1 Gt. This would help the country achieve its goals, increase wealth and improve income distribution.

It should be noted that this study focused on the existing traditional bioeconomy: it does not address the potential of bioeconomy regarding biodiversity. These figures are believed to have the potential to catch up with the traditional bioeconomy; and its sustainable development, in addition to ensuring biome conservation, would have an extensive social impact.

What are Brazil’s competitive advantages in bioeconomy? How is Brazil’s industrial sector involved in this process?

 PC – Brazil is endowed with the land, favorable climate and water for the so-called traditional bioeconomy, in addition to housing the largest biodiversity on the planet. It also has core technologies powered by the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa). However, the country does not yet play a leading role when it comes to the new bioeconomy, which seeks to use biomass fully, to reduce land use and water consumption and to use biodiversity sustainably.

Unfortunately, little has been done to support and establish new bio-refineries, where the fuels and chemicals – commodities and specialties – would be produced, thereby boosting the sector’s profitability. On top of this, little is known about biodiversity, and efforts to map it are erratic and uncoordinated, and just a few studies to identify commercially viable molecules/compounds have been conducted so far. The government fails to act in a concerted manner and Brazilian companies need to invest to spot and seize the best opportunities, thus gaining a leading position in this domain globally.

And what can be done for the country to play this leading role?

PC – To turn potential advantages into actual advantages, it is urgently needed that investments in R&D are boosted and that creation of supply chains arising from these investments are supported. Brazil needs to move away from the position of exporter of raw materials and establish the necessary chains to export finished products, i.e., higher added value goods. This means working on taxes and fees, generating temporary subsidies and encouraging research – from basic to applied research.

This cannot be emphasized enough: a coordinated program that brings together the government, the academic community and the private sector is needed in order to map and identify opportunities in Brazil’s biodiversity. In this regard, choices need to be made. Resources are limited. We need to craft models that will identify the best opportunities to allocate subsidies and incentives where our competitive advantages would be sure to yield results.

In other words, it is necessary to support measures to leverage the bioeconomy sector in the country. We need to encourage the establishment of a tax framework capable of catalyzing the creation of supply chains that lead to higher added value products – and increasing spending on the search for opportunities and on R&D.

What role can the SENAI Institute for Innovation in Biosynthetics play here?

PC – The ISI has four technological platforms: Process Engineering, Chemical Synthesis, Biotechnology, and Fibers. ISI uses them to work on traditional Bioeconomy and Biodiversity with a focus on industries such as oil and gas, chemicals, cosmetics, pulp and paper, food, health care, etc. Therefore, based on business demand, the ISI uses biomass/waste from the country’s main crops – sugarcane, corn, soy, eucalyptus/pine, etc. – to develop new processes and products.

The Institute also works to identify opportunities and their developments based on Brazil’s biodiversity, while supporting not only companies, but also communities across the various national biomes. The ISI also has a competitive intelligence unit that operates a proprietary methodology for evaluating opportunities – translating research into figures in order to support potential business.

The ISI has been around for six years, and so far it has entered into approximately 160 R&D agreements with the industry, of which more than 100 have already been delivered. In addition, several of the products developed by the Institute are now on the market, and more than a dozen patents have been filed in Brazil and abroad under partnerships with companies.