White Biotechnology - Present status and future perspectives of industrial biotechnology for a sustainable economy

"White" or industrial biotechnology (IBT) represents a significant element within a bioeconomy to be established. IBT is ascribed the potential of providing energy-efficient and resource-efficient industrial production processes which enable the comprehensive development of biomass as a renewable industrial raw material in order to substitute fossil resources in the long-term and to contribute to environmental and climate protection.


The Committee on Education, Research and Technology Assessment of the German Bundestag has commissioned the Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag to provide in innovation report on IBT.

For this innovation report, Fraunhofer ISI has elaborated an overview of the procedures, applications and economic perspectives of industrial biotechnology.


Industrial biotechnology comprises a multitude of different production procedures and products. Production processes using industrial biotechnology are based on the metabolism of organisms (mostly bacteria or fungi) which catalyse the transformation of biomass as a raw material into the respective target product. The combination of genetic engineering, advanced metabolic engineering, systems biology and synthetic biology is the state of the art for optimising production organisms and their production-relevant properties. Efficient bioprocess development and upscaling to the industrial production scale require an integration of biocatalyst optimisation and process development.

Procedures of industrial biotechnology are traditionally established in industry sectors where agricultural commodities and other natural substances are industrially processed. This includes industry sectors like food and beverage, leather, pulp and paper as well as the textile industry. In environmental engineering as well, biotechnical procedures for the treatment of waste water, exhaust air, contaminated soils and organic residues are widely spread. The traditionally research-intensive and innovative chemical industry, however, plays a key role in industrial biotechnology, as it has set strategic priorities and established corresponding competences and networks. Moreover, together with mechanical and plant engineering, it provides a substantial part of innovation services for downstream industries. Industrial biotechnology focuses on the production of fine and specialty chemicals which represent the economically most important sector of the German chemical industry.

Due to the increasing maturity and options for commercialisation in industrial biotechnology, its economic significance is growing as well. In retrospect, however, many market forecasts proved to be too optimistic: The future increases have been overestimated, i. a. because the speed and level of commercialisation of industrial biotechnology are significantly influenced by prices of raw materials, technological breakthroughs, requirements regarding the sustainability balance of processes and products as well as financing issues. Due to the currently low prices for fossil resources and the close coupling of prices for agricultural commodities and crude oil, a significant improvement of the relative cost competitiveness of bio-based products compared to oil-based products is not to be expected for the time being.

In industrial biotechnology, large companies having their main business in the chemicals or agro-food sector are playing a key role as innovators and producers. In Germany, approximately 10 % of the dedicated biotech companies can be assigned to the field of industrial biotechnology. These companies focus on services and technology development, but in some cases also have taken up production activities. In view of its international competitiveness in the sector of industrial biotechnology, Germany has a strong position with regard to technological knowledge. Macroeconomic effects are most likely to be observed with regard to safeguarding existing jobs, whereas a significant absolute increase in employment or gains in market shares will be rather unlikely in the future as well. This is typical for interdisciplinary technologies such as industrial biotechnology. For this reason, its significance with regard to the growth of established industry sectors should not be underestimated.

The Fraunhofer ISI analysis is complemented by an additional report, prepared by UFZ, which summarizes current scientific debates concerning the environmental and sustainability potentials of industrial biotechnology.


  • Heike Aichinger, Bärbel Hüsing, Sven Wydra (2016): »Weiße Biotechnologie – Innovationsanalyse Teil I.  Stand und Perspektiven der industriellen Biotechnologie: Verfahren, Anwendungen, ökonomische Perspektiven«. TAB-Arbeitsbericht Nr. 168. Berlin: Büro für Technikfolgen-Abschätzung beim Deutschen Bundestag.

          Summary (in German language only), Report (in German language only)

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