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5 Minutes With… Professor Kevin O’Connor, University College Dublin.

Kevin O'Connor.jpg“… to increase resource efficiency, diversify business, and create new export opportunities and to revitalise rural Ireland through job creation and investment.”

This month the Irish government published the first National Policy Statement on the bio-economy – Project Ireland 2040.The 116 billion development plan, is being rolled out over the next decade but is underpinned by a 20 year planning framework. It highlights the potential of the bio-economy in promoting both the more efficient use of renewable resources and also supporting economic development and employment in rural Ireland. At the announcement Taoiseach Leo Varadkar T.D., stated that the plan aims to ensure that Ireland becomes a global leader for the bio-economy. To learn more about Irelands role now, and its potential for more, our Editor Luke Upton spoke to Professor Kevin OConnor, of University College Dublin, a man who not only has extensive academic expertise, but also one foot in the commercial camp as he also has his own business within the bio-economy. Luke and Kevin sit down to discuss learning from the best, revitalizing rural economies, launching bio-based businesses and more…

Luke Upton (LU): Thanks for the time today. Youve studied and taught in the Netherlands, Switzerland as well as your native Ireland, what has led your career to focus on the bio-economy?

Kevin O’Connor (KO’C): No problem Luke, my interest in the bio-economy stems from my long-term interest in environmental research. As an undergraduate student I performed my final year laboratory based projects on the use of microorganisms in the remediation of pollutants.

I completed my PhD at University College Cork (UCC) with Professor Alan Dobson on the bioremediation of environmental pollutants. After my PhD my focus changed and I wanted to study the use of microorganisms to produce products of value rather than just degrading them.

I was lucky enough to secure a postdoctoral research position with Dr Sybe Hartmans at Wageningen UR (then called Wageningen Agricultural University) working on microbial biocatalysis. After Wageningen I went to the ETH in Zurich to work with Dr Wouter Duetz and Professor Bernard Witholt on discovering novel biocatalysts.

Professor Witholt was a world leader in microbial production of biodegradable polymers and while I was not working on the polymers that research really caught my attention. I was curious to know if we could use microorganisms to convert wastes and pollutants as starting materials into biodegradable polymers.

When I took up a lectureship at University College Dublin (UCD) in the department of Industrial Microbiology which later merged with other departments to become the School of Biomolecular and Biomedical Science,my first PhD student worked on the conversion of styrene, post-consumer polystyrene and other waste plastics, to a biodegradable polymer. From there I expanded to look at bio-based resources such as grass and food processing wastes as starting materials for biodegradable polymer and chemical production. The use of microorganisms to convert fossil and bio-based resources to biodegradable polymers and chemicals is a perfect overlap of the circular economy and bio-economy.

LU: I know youve got a particular focus on methods of improving plastic recycling and upcycling, have you seen an increase in public awareness in this area since you began working in this area?

KO’C ( @kevinoconnnorucd ) : When I started research in this area nearly 20 years ago there was an awareness of the limitations of fossil based non-degradable plastics and their negative environmental impact.

However that awareness has grown significantly in the public mind in unison with science and policy developments as well as non-government movements. The emergence of scientific reports of plastic pollution in the sea affecting marine life, the circular economy through organisations such as The Ellen MacArthur foundation, and the EU circular economy strategy, I believe have influenced multiple sectors to develop or revise a strategy on plastics.

They are doing this to address customer concerns or to create a brand advantage. Big brands such as Lego, Pepsi, Coke, IKEA and more are all making announcements in this space. This is where consumer power can help to drive change.

LU:Youre an academic, but also set up your own business, Bioplastech in 2009, can you tell us a little about this?

KO’C:Bioplastech was founded, as a UCD spin-out company, to commercialise technology to convert non-degradable plastic waste to biodegradable polymer and to develop products based on that biodegradable polymer. We have developed technology to convert a number of starting materials to biodegradable polymers.

The products we have developed are glues (adhesives) that can be used for packaging closures, labels, and adhesive tapes. They have special properties which allows them to be used in fridges and freezers. The adhesives Bioplastech makes are compostable (degrade in a compost heap) within 180 days. We have developed robust manufacturing processes and prototype products and we are looking to partner to scale up the technology.

LU:Youve been instrumental in helping launch the bio-economy innovation and piloting facility at Lisheen in Ireland. With a strong agricultural base that the country has, just how big can the bio-economy become in Ireland?

KO’C: Irish agriculture and agri-food has a global reputation for high quality products. The bio-economy is an enormous opportunity for Ireland to tap into its natural resources, research and business expertise, and tacit knowledge to increase resource efficiency, diversify business, and create new export opportunities and to revitalise rural Ireland through job creation and investment.

Industrial leadership in the bio-economy can be supported by the right policy framework and the research and education expertise of research performing organisations such as University College Dublin. The development of the bio-economy must be in a rural setting with research, industry and local authorities working in partnership.

I believe Lisheen is a perfect site for the development of a rural bio-economy campus. Ireland, thanks to the vision of government and its agencies is now funding the critical platforms to support the development of the bio-economy i.e. Research in scientific, technological and sustainability challenges through the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) funded Bioeconomy research centre (BEACON – @biobeacon), the Enterprise Ireland funded piloting and innovation facility at Lisheen to scale and validate technologies, and a policy statement on the bio-economy led by the Taoiseachs (prime minister) office.

The next step to develop a full bio-economy strategy will help Ireland to build a robust roadmap to sustainably exploit the bio-economy opportunity.

The initial vision for the bio-economy was centered on industry and high volume low value products such as bioethanol and biodiesel. For me that model does not encourage or empower biomass producers such as farmers, foresters, and mariners to invest in the bio-economy as they are required to produce biomass at a very low price and produce high volumes placing stress on their existing business.

The evolving bio-economy vision at the EU policy level is promoting the production of a range of high value products which can contribute to human health, animal health, and even reduce antibiotics in feed and such objectives are at the heart of the UNs Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Such expansion offers more business opportunities and is more attractive to biomass producers and processors.

Given the countrys strength in food and agriculture Ireland is well positioned to be a world leader in the bioeconomy and I believe this provides us with an opportunity to contribute significantly to the attainment of the UNs SDGs.

LU: What advice would you give someone who is just starting out working in the bio-economy?

KO’C: The bio-economy is huge so my advice is the same as advice I would give someone starting out in the fossil economy. You cant do everything so do one or two things very well. You cant do everything alone so collaborate to build and benefit from your network. Learn from the experiences of those that have spent many years making mistakes so you can make less mistakes.

As a researcher or entrepreneur talk to multiple stakeholders: they are often willing to talk about their challenges and to discuss potential solutions. The bioeconomy is still finding its feet so the ground will shift further but the world needs sustainable solutions. If you have a good idea remember you are likely to have to adapt it to a changing world to keep it moving forward. Dont be afraid to kill your darling ideas if it makes for a more sustainable world.

LU: What is your favourite bio-based / sustainable product and why?

KO’C: A bio-based and compostable polymer is an obvious choice for me as it is made from natural resources and returns to the earth as a nutrient (compost). Its a truly circular bio-based productSome commentators on the circular economy suggest biodegradable polymers do not contribute to the circular economy, because they do not fit into the current recycling systems e.g. mechanical recycling, I strongly disagree as biodegradable polymers like PLA, while compostable, can also be recycled back to individual monomers so the system of collecting, separating and processing must change and evolve to deal with new plastic offerings. Secondly compostable polymers are recycled by the ultimate recyclers (microbes) in natural low energy processes such as composting.

You may also be interested in…

Read:Funding gained to turn former mine into Irish bio-economy innovation and piloting facility.

Read:Project Focus: Converting dairy by-products into high value bio-based chemicals.

Read:5 Minutes With David Babson, senior advisor at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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