Baden-Württemberg's Bioeconomy research strategy

Fraunhofer IGB News /

Fossil fuels are still by far the most important basis for the chemical products we know – ranging from fuel to plastics and textiles, lubricants and construction materials to cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. However, fossil resources are finite, and climate change coupled with a growing world population present society with major challenges. A “biobased” economy – “bioeconomy” for short – promises a sustainable solution to securing food for the human race. Secondly, it uses renewable resources for the production of energy and materials, while at the same time protecting the climate and the environment.

The bioeconomy system

The bioeconomy functions on the principles of continuity – pursued consistently from basic research, followed by applied research, up to the industrial implementation of new processes and products – and of regionality, i.e. seeking wherever possible to exploit local resources and strengths. At the same time, a particularly high priority must be accorded to providing scientists with appropriately structured training, building on the holistic approach and system-oriented solutions to complex problems to which they will ideally have been introduced during their studies. The marriage of scientific expertise with a more resource-efficient, ethical and efficiency-oriented economic approach will serve as a basis for sustainable prosperity.

Bioeconomy Strategy Group

As a former member of Germany’s first Bioeconomy Council Prof. Thomas Hirth headed the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Science, Research and the Arts’  bioeconomy strategy board “Bioökonomie im System” established in 2012. Under his expert direction, representatives of all universities involved in bioeconomy research and teaching drew up a comprehensive research plan with the aim of highlighting the topic bioeconomy as a fixed reference point in the Baden-Württemberg scientific landscape and establishing it as a strategy for the future. In July 2013, the group adopted a strategy paper defining concrete fields of action to promote bioeconomy research in Baden-Württemberg. These recommendations were well received by science minister Theresia Bauer, and the basis of this plan, the Council of Ministers adopted a new bioeconomy research program for Baden-Württemberg with a total funding volume of 12 million euros over the period 2014 – 2019.

Comprehensive research plan

The research strategy focuses on exploring the bioeconomy in terms of value creation cycles and as an overall system. To this end, the strategy circle looked at all the numerous research institutions in Baden-Württemberg, identified those all that engaged in relevant topics, and within a short time brought them together with established experts for economics, ethics and the social sciences. Thus social, economic and political parameters were taken into equal account from the outset, along with the effects on the environment and society. The expert team identified some 180 individual areas of expertise at 24 universities, universities of applied research and nonuniversity research institutions. From these they distilled seven scientifically suitable core research areas for Baden-Württemberg, and chose two spokespersons for each of these subgroups. The groups acted within a structure of supply and demand: thus, on the supply side, the research areas deemed most important were agricultural and plant sciences, forestry, aquatic biomass and biogenic residues. On the demand / utilization side, the key areas identified were application fields such as food production, and, subsequently, the material and energetic use of waste materials. This enabled the creation of a competence matrix, in which biodiversity, water and soil conservation, ethics, as well as economic and social sciences were named as cross-disciplinary areas.

Following in-depth data collection and its detailed analysis, the strategy group identified three areas of research that, with the help of targeted research funding, will soon be able to provide visible stimuli to research and industry in Baden-Württemberg and beyond. The plan focuses on three areas of research – biogas, lignocellulose and algae – and at the same identifies structural measures to profile and sustainably strengthen Baden-Württemberg as an innovative bioeconomy region.

Focus on biogas, lignocellulose and algae

Biogas has been identified as a research field for which scientific know-how is already available in Baden-Württemberg along the entire value chain. It therefore lends itself as an early candidate for implementation of the bioeconomy systems approach. Lignocellulose research is characterized by a large number of individual competencies spread across a broad spectrum of knowledge. The first step must therefore be to improve the bundling and networking of existing expertise, so that implementation is realistic in the medium term. The plan ascribes the highest degree of innovation – and consequently long-term perspectives – to research into the use of microalgae. The key objective here is the economically efficient production of microalgae along the lines of a biorefinery, i.e. production by means of integrated material and energetic use and for multiple applications. The selection of the three above-named areas with their sub-themes as research priorities is expected to lead to many completely new combinations of existing scientific competences, and thus promises great potential for innovation in Baden-Württemberg.

Structural measures

To underline the systemic approach, the development of research fields will be supported through the Baden-Württemberg government’s new Bioeconomy Research Program and flanked by structural measures. The strategy group proposed three measures: a competence center for modeling and simulation of bioeconomy systems, a common graduate program to integrate bioeconomy from the start in the education of doctorate students, and a concept for the joint use of infrastructure that will enable the resource-efficient use of large and technically complex equipment in future. With its manifold expertise and experience in the field of bioeconomy that is characterized by the reconciling of seemingly conflicting demands, the Fraunhofer IGB itself has been able to contribute many new impulses. It thus opens up new  perspectives for innovation to its partners from science and industry both in Baden-Württemberg and further afield.