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From Lignite to the Bioeconomy

Interview with plant researcher Prof. Ulrich Schurr on the role that the bioeconomy could play in structural changeStrukturwandel

Fossil resources were the fuel that brought the major industrialized nations progress and prosperity. However, the ecological consequences of utilizing these resources are becoming increasingly ominous. The situation is so grave that Germany is currently preparing to phase out coal production entirely, with the first power plant units in the Rhineland region scheduled to be disconnected from the grid as early as 2022. What does this mean for a region whose identity has traditionally been strongly linked to lignite, yet simultaneously is one of Europe’s highest-potential regions for sustainable and productive agriculture, home to a very strong food industry, and surrounded by markets with demand for both food products and sustainable resources for the chemical industry?

With their plans for a bioeconomy district in the Rhineland, representatives from science, enterprise, politics, and civil society are devising a concept to transform this region, which until now has been heavily influenced by the use of fossil fuels, into a model region for a sustainable economy – all on the basis of a modern bioeconomy. Their approach is founded on the transition from a fossil-based to a bio-based sustainable economy, in which critical material life cycles ideally start and finish regionally, and added value is created. Thus the future bioeconomy won’t have much in common with the form of economy in place before fossil fuels turned our planet and our society upside down – which is really quite reassuring when you consider that the world’s population has increased almost tenfold since then. In the following interview, Prof. Schurr, director at Forschungszentrum Jülich’s Institute of Plant Sciences, outlines the opportunities and challenges associated with a model bioeconomy district. Jülich has proven itself to be a particularly suitable starting point for this endeavour, as its location between sugar beet fields and open-cast mines ticks several of the boxes expected of an optimal bioeconomy district.

Prof. Dr. Ulrich Schurr, Leiter des Instituts für Pflanzenwissenschaften.Prof. Dr. Ulrich Schurr, Head Institute of Bio- and Geosciences Plant Sciences (IBG-2)
Copyright:  Forschungszentrum Jülich / Wilhelm Peter Schneider

What exactly can we expect from a bioeconomy district?

Prof. Schurr: First of all, the field of bioeconomy is very broad. Topics range from food production to the manufacture of chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and numerous materials. At a regional level today, this is reflected in the many sectors that are individually strong but often isolated. From a scientific perspective, we are primarily interested in working out how these sectors can be integrated. How can we bring all of the different areas together in a meaningful way? This can only be achieved if the production, implementation, and utilization of raw materials are considered together with their socio-economic context. Over the past few years, we have developed numerous relevant concepts and ideas in the Bioeconomy Science Center (BioSC) and have thus created a scientific basis. This has yet to be tested across an entire region, however, and there is enormous potential here. But to do so, we have to set up a real-life laboratory and examine a number of issues: what happens when we incorporate real stakeholders, for example, and how can we involve society? In my view, this is both the greatest challenge and the greatest opportunity embodied by a bioeconomy district.

In concrete terms, how can the bioeconomy contribute to overcoming the social and energy policy challenges associated with structural change?

Prof. Schurr: The current discussion on structural change is very much from the perspective of the energy sector. I believe that this is too narrow a view. The region has the chance to consider how it wants to develop in future, and this needn’t be limited to the question of energy. We see a wide range of opportunities for developing the region, as it has many strengths. The energy sector is one of these, as is digitization and – naturally – the bioeconomy. This fits in well with Forschungszentrum Jülich’s portfolio, but also with the portfolios of other research and educational institutions in the region with whom we have partnerships. What we must all recognize is that structural change can only be achieved if we work together. We need to seize the opportunity to develop the bioeconomy in collaboration with other sectors that are relevant for both Forschungszentrum Jülich and the wider region. There are points of interaction with energy but also with digitization. In digital agriculture, for instance, we are trying to link yield data with satellite information on water availability and plant stress levels. This area is currently progressing rapidly and offers substantial potential for growth. We are also participating in two clusters of excellence, PhenoRob and CEPLAS2. In the energy sector, for example, we are attempting to use surplus electricity for biotechnological processes, and also to utilize products from biorefineries to make energy storage systems more sustainable. Projects like these, which combine the different sectors, have the potential to drive the entire region forward.

Who are your most important partners in the region?

Prof. Schurr: On the research side of things, we have several established partners. These include BioSC, which has been up and running for ten years now, and through which we work closely with the universities in Bonn, Düsseldorf, and Aachen. Elsewhere, the University of Cologne, the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research, and Fraunhofer IAIS all play an important role in the CEPLAS2 and PhenoRob clusters of excellence. We work with other Fraunhofer institutes too – notably IME in Aachen and UMSICHT in Oberhausen. There are also long-established cooperation projects in place with our large industrial partners. In the region along the Rhine, and in neighbouring Belgium and the Netherlands, we have the chemical industry. We also have good contacts in the regional agriculture sector. We have developed partnerships with farmers’ organization Rheinische Landwirtschafts-Verband and the regional Chamber of Agriculture, and work with them on a daily basis. In matters concerning structural change, we more or less act in a group capacity..

An area where we would like to see more collaboration is with the many small and medium-sized enterprises based in the region. There are still considerable resources to be tapped here, and we’re discovering more every day. This is why, as part of the BioREVIER project funded by the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi), we are targeting companies that are active in the bioeconomy sphere. Our goal is to promote networking between the various players, the idea being to generate added value and thus create employment. In other words, our focus is on the entire value chain, from knowledge creation to transfer and application. Of these, knowledge transfer is an area in which Germany is known to perform relatively poorly. In terms of research and economy we are relatively strong, but when it comes to translating our scientific findings into profitable applications, Germany has only had limited success thus far. In my view, our best chance to change this is at the regional level, because knowledge is mainly transferred through personal contacts, trusted relationships, and informal meetings. Geographical proximity is an important advantage in this regard.

The term “bioeconomy” is itself interdisciplinary. What is the biggest challenge to be overcome when different disciplines come together?

Prof. Schurr: BioSC is a good example of this. When we started, there were four different institutions with four different disciplines, so the first step was for everyone to get to know each other and realize that we all had a common interest. The next step was to recognize that by working together we could accomplish a lot more. Needless to say, implementing this approach across the whole region adds an entirely new dimension.

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Keimling im GewächshausHealthy food products with targeted plant protection measures, biodegradable cups, plastics pro-duced without crude oil, a chemical industry whose raw materials grow in the fields – these are just a few of the applications of bioeconomy research. The Bioeconomy Science Center (BioSC) is a centre of excellence for bioeconomic issues that is exploring options for sustainable forms of economy rooted in bio-based production methods. BioSC conducts both basic and application-oriented research by pooling expertise from Forschungszentrum Jülich and the universities in Aachen, Bonn, and Düsseldorf.
Copyright: Forschungszentrum Jülich / Ralf-Uwe Limbach

What role do the social sciences play in all this?

Prof. Schurr: The social sciences undoubtedly have a crucial role to play, particularly in terms of development within a region. After all, structural change is tied up with the idea of identity. What identity does the region currently have? At the moment, the prevailing self-image in the Rhineland is as a lignite-mining region – which is really quite surprising, given that only a small number of people actually engage with the subject of lignite on a daily basis. And yet lignite forms part of the regional identity. As structural change becomes a reality, however, this self-image will rapidly disappear, begging the question: what will replace it? Other meaningful narratives are slowly emerging. For example, when my daughter is asked where she comes from, she now says “Hambacher Forest” [site of an ongoing occupation by environmental campaigners to prevent clearing of the forest for mining]. The power that these narratives can take on is seen in the example of Wackersdorf in Bavaria. The town is still associated with the protests held there against plans to build a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant, despite the fact that those events took place a long time ago. I believe it is very important to reflect on how such identities are or can be formed.
A bioeconomy district is particularly interesting from this perspective, as from our position on the ground, we are hoping to generate positive momentum for the whole region in a way that is tangible to the people living here. This gives us a direct link back to society. If, for example, instead of wheat and sugar beet, increasing numbers of different plants were to be cultivated in the fields, people would notice straight away. On the other hand, if a new machine were to be installed in a factory or an industrial plant built in a particular area, the impact would be more local. The bioeconomy therefore offers the chance to implement measures in a very visible way in the heart of the region.

For this reason, we are currently setting up a socio-economic competence platform at BioSC which, among other topics, will focus on structural change. We want to find out exactly what happens when an entire region sets out to move from fossil energy carriers to a sustainable, bio-based economy. A great deal depends on both the starting point and the specific conditions. In other words, a bioeconomy district in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania would look a lot different to one implemented here in the Rhineland. We aim to support this transformation in a scientific capacity through our competence platform. At the same time, we intend to carry out practical tests on site with a real-life laboratory and real stakeholders.

The path you describe from scientific findings to practical application and value creation – isn’t this new territory for Forschungszentrum Jülich?

Prof. Schurr: .Fundamentally, structural change itself could be described as “new territory” – there are at least two aspects that are completely new for us. For one thing, until now Forschungszentrum Jülich has only thought about application in terms of achieving a prototype at best. In the efforts to realize a bioeconomy district, this perspective will need to change a little. At the same time, however, I believe it would be wrong to shift the focus from knowledge creation to innovation alone. Instead, we must find a way to incorporate innovation and transfer as additional elements in the process. After all, the same people do not necessarily create knowledge and transfer it.

Regional focus is also new territory for us. Up to now, Forschungszentrum Jülich has concentrated more on the remote than the local, its mission rooted in a European or a global context; its own location has sometimes been seen as a handicap rather than an opportunity. However, the only way for us to effectively play our part in structural change is if we recognize the importance of the region as a whole. Learning to regard our regional ties as an asset is another new dimension that offers a wealth of positive benefits and new opportunities – including for basic research at Forschungszentrum Jülich. Simultaneously, Jülich is in a position to help craft a new identity for the region. Public opinion perceives the Rhineland predominantly as a lignite-mining region. However, considering the number of people employed here and the potential for value creation, the region is already shaped to a greater extent by innovation than lignite..

Turning a vision into a reality requires practical examples that demonstrate ideas in concrete terms. Are there any existing bioeconomy projects that would enable this?

Prof. Dr. Ulrich Schurr, Leiter des Instituts für Pflanzenwissenschaften.Copyright:  Forschungszentrum Jülich / Wilhelm Peter Schneider

Prof. Schurr: .We have several ideas for projects for which applications have already been submitted – particularly at the interfaces with energy and digitization, as there is a lot happening in these areas at the moment. One example is 5G test sites for agriculture. 5G is important in precision agriculture for increasing resource use efficiency, and it also plays a role in robotics. In future we can bank on seeing robots in the fields, or flocks of drones communicating with each other. We plan to work with Brainergy Park in Jülich on this.

In the energy sector, the task at hand is to move from a centralized to a local energy supply. One of the questions we need to ask ourselves here is how to design a biorefinery whose various functions are distributed geographically. In this case, our biorefinery wouldn’t be a central factory, but rather an entire region.

As for the digital aspect of the bioeconomy, much more is already happening than people are aware of. Long-time Jülich residents still remember the endless traffic jams caused by farm vehicles during the sugar beet harvest. Today, there is a sophisticated logistics system in place to prevent congestion. This connection between agricultural production, delivery, and utilization is a good example of how different sectors can be interlinked. It was all initiated by resourceful farmers – without a lot of fuss or requests for funding.

In addition, today’s sugar factories not only produce sugar, but a variety of other substances as well. In other words, they already possess some of the features of a biorefinery. The same goes for the entire food industry in the region, which processes large amounts of biomass. Again, this produces residual material which – from a bioeconomic perspective – is not seen as waste, but rather a starting point for new products. The region therefore offers numerous advantages for implementing a bioeconomy. We are a priority region for agricultural production, we have some of the best soil in Europe, we are in a position to produce in a sustainable manner, we are in a position to diversify, we have local processing capabilities, and we are also close to markets with demand for such products. Moreover, the entire endeavour is underpinned by scientific work. As a result, we boast a superb starting point..

How long will it take for the first results to be seen in the region?

Prof. Schurr: We’re not just talking about a single time frame. With structural change, we are definitely looking at the next 15–20 years at least. However, if the first coal power plants are to be disconnected from the grid in 2022, the question of providing new jobs will need to be addressed in the very short term. We therefore have a short-term scenario concerning new jobs, a medium-term scenario concerning the direction in which the region as a whole will move, and a long-term scenario – spanning several decades – concerning the implementation of the bioeconomy. There are different targets involved, and work has already begun on all three.

What about this project appeals to you personally?

Prof. Schurr: Looking back on my scientific career, I started out deep in basic research, was then introduced to a strategic research perspective at Forschungszentrum Jülich, and am now expanding my horizons to include practical application without turning my back on basic research. We have the opportunity to take the scientific ideas and concepts we have developed here and to test and implement them in the region. The possibility of achieving something important for the region at the end of it all is a huge motivator for me.

Weiterführende Informationen

Institute of Bio- and Geosciences - Plant Sciences (IBG-2)

Bioeconomy Science Center

Phenorob - Robotics and Phenotyping for Sustainable Crop Production

CEPLAS – Cluster of Excellence on Plant Sciences

Bioeconomy district (only in german)

Philippe Patra