Petroleum-based fuels and related materials are central to the economies of developed and developing countries around the world. However, these resources are finite and expected to enter a period of diminishing availability within the next several decades.
To move economies based on petroleum and its feedstocks to fuels and materials that are renewable, environmentally friendly, and of greater availability, the science and engineering communities worldwide are exploring many options. Principal alternative energy resources that scientists have been exploring are wind, solar radiation, hydropower, geothermal power, coal combined with carbon sequestration, hydrogen, and biomass. In addition, biomass and biologically-generated polymers are attractive renewable feedstocks as energy-producing materials. It appears likely that no single resource will offer the versatility of petroleum in the future. As a result, several complementary technologies are being explored to meet the world’s diverse needs for energy and resource materials.
Biologically based transformations have several potentially favorable attributes. They typically operate on renewable resources, at low temperatures, in aqueous environments, and produce few byproducts because of the specific nature of enzymatic catalysis. These attributes make industrial biotechnology inherently consistent with the principles of Green Chemistry and promise industrial commodity production with less environmental impact.
In this document, the application of industrial biotechnology to the important commodity classes of fuels and plastics is reviewed. Where applicable, those areas that have been advanced under funding from the joint EPA and National Science Foundation (NSF) program, Technology for a Sustainable Environment (TSE), are highlighted. Promising areas for future exploration and development are identified as well.