Features International Sugar Journal

Technologies that will impact sugar industry in the coming years

As our planet’s finite resources lays out a path towards circular economy, modelled on increasing resource productivity and reducing waste – recycle, remanufacture and reuse – which supersedes the traditional resource-intensive production and consumption model – take, make and dispose – growth and competitiveness of businesses adopting such novel business models will invariably be long lasting. Current technological advances inform a range of new innovations that increasingly embrace or adhere to the principles of circular economy. I would like to just focus on three technologies in the biorenewables, sugar production and agriculture sectors that are beginning to or will have significantly positive impact. Underpinning them are resource productivity and resource use efficiency while also being environmentally sustainable and desirable.

Industrial biotechnology was arguably born following the development of metabolic engineering toolbox comprising omics technologies, computational systems biology, protein engineering and synthethic biology.1 The toolbox facilitates engineering of metabolic pathway in microbes to produce a desired molecule. This technology has facilitated many biotech start-ups whereby, in most cases, bioengineered microbes produce a variety of platform chemicals sugar-starch feedstocks.

The recent breakthrough in gene editing technology is a marked progress in genetic engineering which is “highly precise, very efficient, and far easier to use than previous methods2. Gene editing is facilitated by ‘molecular scissors’ – basically a protein that cuts DNA in two. Previously, this process was a ‘hit or miss’ affair – when edited scrap of DNA was injected into a cell, there was no certainty it would work. The development of molecular scissors has greatly assisted in directing a cut to “a specific location in the genome by a molecular guide. [Specifically], the guide is a length of RNA – DNA’s chemical cousin – whose shape allows it to latch on to a specific gene. The RNA directs the scissors to a desired gene. The scissors make a single snip, and then one’s chosen chunk of DNA is slotted neatly into place”. This tool was developed by Jennifer Doudna of the University of California in 2012 after observing how some bacteria have evolved mechanisms to protect their genomes from invading viruses.

Scaling and fouling of evaporators during campaigns invariably involves periodic shutdowns to clean them out. Manufacturers of evaporators are heavily involved in developing materials or coatings with hydrophobic surface to check this problem. Researchers at universities in both USA and Europe are actively involved in this field. Significant breakthrough at commercial scale would open up this technology for wide ranging applications apart from evaporators. This includes preventing ice formation and its subsequent buildup which hinders the operation aircrafts, offshore oil platforms, wind turbines, power lines, and telecommunications equipment. Two noteworthy examples of current research in this field are from USA. Professor Chunlei Guo of Rochester University reported in a research paper3 that laser-treated metals were transformed into extremely water repellent, or super-hydrophobic, materials without the need for temporary coatings. Researchers at MIT have developed a hydrophobic and highly durable graphene coating which they claim (are superior to polymer coating and) can improve the rate of heat transfer in condenser by a factor of greater than four once their technology is finely tuned4.

Combination of aging farming community (and their declining performance with conventional technology spurred on by fading visual acuity) and decrease in agricultural labour force is a growing reality globally. Against this backdrop, timely developments are surfacing to provide much needed support. These include the rise of precision farming which “has already begun to revolutionize farming practices [particularly when it comes to] improvements in variable-rate applications in seedling, fertilizing, and crop protection5 and the development of remote-controlled and autonomous vehicles that will assist with variety of farming operations including harvesting.

References

1 Keith E. Tyo, Hal S. Alper and Gregory N. Stephanopoulos (2007) Expanding the metabolic engineering toolbox: More options to engineer cells, Trends in Biotechnology, 25 (3): 132-137

2 John Parrington (2015) Making the cut. Aeon https://aeon.co/essays/we-now-have-a-good-text-editor-for-your-genetic-code

3 A Y Vorobyev and Chunlei Guo (2015) Multifunctional surfaces produced by femtosecond laser pulses. Journal of Applied Physics (DOI: 10.1063/1.4905616).

4 Daniel J. Preston, Daniela L. Mafra, Nenad Miljkovic, Jing Kong and Evelyn N. Wang (2015) Scalable graphene coatings for enhanced condensation heat transfer. Nano Letters, 15 (5): 2902–2909

5 Boston Consulting Group (2015) Crop farming 2030: The reinvention of the sector