An interview with Marco Astorri, CEO of Bio-on. “It is necessary to make a step forward to more circular processes”

Marco Astorri
“Bio-on’smission’ is to contribute to the protection of ecosystems and natural resources management in an integrated approach, environmentally, economically, socially, technically sustainable”. Marco Astorri, founder and CEO of Bio-on, one of the most dynamic and innovative biotech companies in Europe, talks to Il Bioeconomista. In this long and exclusive interview, the CEO of Bio-on talks about the bioeconomy, the bioplastics and the next steps of the company headquartered in Bologna. “It is necessary – he states – to make a step forward to more circular processes where wastes and co-products of already existing production systems could become raw materials of innovative industrial processes, obtaining added values, reducing emissions and requiring as less oil as possible.”

Interview by Mario Bonaccorso

Mr Astorri, Bio-on has recently presented its new technology, Minerv Biorecovery, which enables hydrocarbon sea pollution to be eliminated within approximately three weeks. How does this technology work?

Bio-on is offering the world and the market the technology to take effective, natural and ecological action in the event of environmental disasters such as oil spills into the sea, opening up unprecedented scenarios for environmental recovery and bioremediation of hydrocarbon pollution (oil-bioremediation): sea water polluted by oil is cleaned within 3 weeks.

We have discovered that the particles forming our PHAs bioplastic are the ideal environment for hosting and feeding the special microorganisms that eliminate oil from the sea.

Minerv Biorecovery is a technological solution made of micro powders, measuring just a few microns and of a particular shape, created out of Bio-on’s revolutionary PHAs bioplastic. The particles of these micro powders are thrown into polluted seawaters and form a porous structure housing a series of bacteria naturally present in the marine environment which, fed by the bioplastic, multiply and grow stronger until they metabolise the oil. PHA bioplastic, which is fully bio-based, helps to protect and feed these bacteria, thus accelerating their natural action.

The biodegradation processes activate within approximately 5 days and the degradable fraction of the hydrocarbons (e.g. oil) is eliminated in approximately 20 days. The micro powders in Minerv Biorecovery are 100% biodegradable and therefore do not release any residue into the sea unlike many solutions used to date in these cases. The biodegradation process for PHAs powder is sufficiently slow (1-2 months depending on conditions) to allow the bioremediation action of the microorganisms, which, after having eliminated the pollutants, return to normal levels in the marine environment.

Bio-on has successfully developed the technology in collaboration and through the validation testing of Istituto per l’Ambiente Marino Costiero del CNR (Institute for Marine Coast Environment of the National Research Council – IAMC-CNR) in Messina, Italy. Tests on Minerv Biorecovery have been on-going for several months at IAMC-CNR in Messina, which has tested, measured and validated the technology. Minerv Biorecovery, like all the PHAs bioplastics (polyhydroxyalkanoates) developed by Bio-on is made from renewable plant sources with no competition with food supply chains.

Is it correct to define Bio-on as a technology provider company?

Bio-on is an Intellectual Property company and supplies technologies to produce or use Polyhydroxyalkanoates-(PHAs) through licenses that restrict rights to a particular territory or to a specific business area. Bio-on grants licenses for the construction of production facilities and works with leading engineering companies all around the world. Bio-on is in the position to manage and provide to its costumers a consolidated, reliable and reproducible technology in the industrial production of PHAs using as raw materials different substrates, including, but not limited to, co-products of sugar beet and sugar cane production (juices, crude syrups, molasses, etc.), different plant oils, potatoes and starch treatment side-streams, crude glycerol from bio-diesel production and many others.

Bio-on, in the frame of its research and development activities, is continuously improving the PHAs’ production technologies and, wherever possible, the optimization of yields, specific consumptions of utilities and auxiliary materials, consistently with the up to dated technological improvements. Furthermore, Bio-on offers to its customers research activities about the development of technologies for the production of PHA from fermentation of different carbon sources.

Not least Bio-on realizes applied research projects directed to plastics users intending to replace traditional plastics with biodegradable ones, in this case Bio-on is able to characterize ad hoc products, even in fields of high range and engineering plastics.

Bio-on has more than ten years of experience in research activities for the development and demonstration of an innovative technology for the production of Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) valorising different wastes, co- and by-products from both agricultural and agro-industrial productions as raw materials. Its “Mission” is to contribute to the protection of ecosystems and natural resources management in an integrated approach, environmentally, economically, socially, technically sustainable.

Last March you laid the first stone in a new plant that will produce Minerv Bio Cosmetics, the microbeads in PHAs special bioplastic designed for the cosmetics sector and destined to replace the microscopic particles (microbeads) made from oil-based, non-biodegradable plastic now used in many cosmetics products. Could you explain something more about this investment?

The official publication of a new USA law, which prevents the use of oil-based polymers in body care products and particularly the category defined as “exfoliants” by the Obama administration, generates an enormous opportunity for the platform products generated by Bio-on (PHAs), as well as its particular applications, as is the case with the new patent for the beauty products sector called Minerv PHA Bio Cosmetics.

The stance taken by the USA against the plastics that in nano and micrometric dimensions form polluting microbeads is aimed exclusively at the “conventional” polymers widely used in cosmetics, as stated in the law: polyethylene (PE), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), nylon, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polypropylene (PP). Oil-based polymers not compostable in the environment not only pollute by their very presence but also increase pollution due to the prolonged periods that they persist in the water and soil. We believe that the only choice capable of producing real change is to use bioplastic microbeads. It is for Bio-on a unique opportunity to propose to the cosmetics industry a solution to safeguard the environment without reducing the performance and effectiveness of their products. Minerv Bio Cosmetics, by using bio-based PHAs, guarantees a relatively short persistence of PHA in water and soil and the derivatives of bacterial aggression are biocompatible, broken down by the bacterial component into molecules and metabolites useful to the environment as nutrients for microorganisms.

This is why the company decided to implement a new production plant dedicated solely to special PHAs production for advanced niche products in rapid development and not in competition with the large-scale plants licensed by Bio-on around the world for PHAs output from 5,000 to 10,000 tons per year. This new plant based in Castel San Pietro Terme in the province of Bologna has 3,700 covered sq m, 6,000 sq m land for development and a total area 30,000 sq m and will require an investment of around Euro 15 Mln. The plant has a capacity of 1,000 tons per year rapidly expandable to 2,000 tons per year, and it is equipped with the most modern technologies and the most advanced research and development laboratories. PHAs. The new line of Minerv bio cosmetics products is now available for finalising their use in myriad cosmetics applications. Our research and development team has developed an intense product development schedule for the 2016-2020 period, in part thanks to the replacement of the polymer particles used today in toothpaste, shampoo, exfoliants (those cited in the USA law), face make-up, tanning and sun creams and many other cosmetics products.

One of the key themes tackled in the new Italian bioeconomy strategy is that of information and dissemination of the bioeconomy, on which the European Commission is also focusing. What needs to be done to engage with public opinion?

Bio-on does not think that the bioeconomy should be particularly pushed or supported by national strategies in order to assert itself. According to the market data available but also hearing at consumers’ needs and requirements, the bioeconomy is already a reality, it is not something we can avoid and, even if some hurdles should be still overcome, the implementation of biorefineries for the production of different bioproducts and biomaterials is the future. What is more than needed now are significant industrial investments.

Surely, what should be clearly understood by European countries is that there is not anymore any advantage in sustain traditional production systems based on linear process ‘production-consumption-waste’. It is necessary to make a step forward to more circular processes where wastes and co-products of already existing production systems could become raw materials of innovative industrial processes, obtaining added values, reducing emissions and requiring as less oil as possible.

The PHA production system developed, demonstrated and scaled up by Bio-on is a clear example of such approach: agro-industrial wastes and co-products are used to feed natural fermentation for the production of bioplastic fully natural and 100% biodegradable.

From your point of view what measures should the government introduce in the very short term to promote full development of the Italian bioeconomy?

I think the Italian government have already done a lot to support the Italian bioeconomy and I believe Italian firms should now walk with their own legs without thinking too much at the national support tools beside those already available and already really effective. I am thinking, as an example, to the big R&D projects funded by MISE (Minister of Economic Development, editor’s note) for the sustainable industries.

As previously mentioned the bioeconomy is a full reality and we are now in a crucial moment for the whole society in terms of economy, civil and social choices, aspects that go also beyond government measures. I am a strong supporter of the Italian bioeconomy for the excellent results so far achieved by the different actors on the field and for the capacity of the technicians operating in the country, now it is the time to decide if Italy would like to be the locomotive of such a great revolution or just another player, one of the several wagons.

With some courage by its industrial players and key investors Italy could really bring a new industrial revolution.

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