China prioritised the bioeconomy in its latest Five-Year Plan and its bio-based industries are growing fast.
In 2021, the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) unveiled a new method for making animal feed from CO and nitrogen with Beijing Shoulang Biotechnology Co., Ltd. From 2021, the team partnered with a steelmaker to convert the plant’s tail gas into 5000 tons of feed-grade protein per year.
CAAS’ breakthrough comes as part of China’s drive to move away from petrochemical dependence. In 2021, China concretised its green commitments by announcing its first ever five-year plan to focus on the bioeconomy, committing $3.28 trillion to bio-agriculture, bio-technology, bio-fuels, bio-information and other sectors.
Just months later, the National Development and Reform Commission laid out a plan to valorise waste by-products, reduce virgin resource consumption, and replace fossil fuel chemicals with renewable counterparts. By 2025, the government aims to valorise 86 percent of crop stalks, 60 percent for bulk solid waste and 60 percent of construction waste. It also aims to produce 20 million tons of recycled non-ferrous metals and increase the output value of the resource recycling industry to 5 trillion RMB.
As the world’s biggest carbon emitter, China’s sustainability initiatives will have profound influence on efforts elsewhere to decarbonise. More than 90 percent of China’s total emissions come from materials used and how they are made. China Baowu, the biggest steel producer in the world, contributed more carbon emissions in 2021 than Pakistan. China Petroleum and Chemical contributed more than Canada – itself the 11st most carbon intensive nation in the world. The steel industry alone burns more than a fifth of China’s total.
China has the resources to realise its bio-based ambitions. It is the largest producer of rice and produces corn, wheat, millet sorghum, barley, potatoes, and sugarcane. The amounts of waste produced by these sectors hold massive reserves for circular and renewable manufacturing initiatives. The country generates 1.04 billion tons of crop straw, 2.05 billion tons of animal manure, 260 million tons of fruit and vegetable wate, and 210 million tons of waste form agricultural product processing.
Like all advanced industrial economies, China’s energy supply remains dominated by fossil fuels, which supplied 87 percent of total energy consumption in 2019. Only 9.7 percent came from renewable energy, much of which was comprised of traditional biomass: charcoal and wood for cooking and home heating.
However, biogas plant construction and bioenergy provision are now a vital part of China’s ‘rural revitalisation strategy’. Take for example the the Deqingyuan biogas project (DQY) in Beijing, centring around the Beijing DQY Agriculture Technology company. DQY’s farm covers 67 hectares and focuses on poultry rearing. As the largest egg farm in Asia, it produces 80, 000 tons of manure and 100, 000 tons of sewage per year. DQY generates 14 million KWh of power from biogas per year from their waste, with a profit of 8.4 million yuan. It provides power to adjacent rural households for free. They also create biogas fertilizer (660 tons per year). It is the first agricultural enterprise in China to be approved by the Clean Development Mechanism introduced by the Kyoto protocol.
Bioethanol production in China is also scaling fast. Chinese production this fuel began in 2002 and it produced around 1.77 billion litres in 2021. Although the US’ production in the same year amounted to 15 billion gallons, China’s 2021 production figure was up 54 percent from 2020 due to foreign demand and is now the fourth largest ethanol producer in the world. Production rates will only continue to increase after the 2021 announcement by China’s National Energy Administration to support biofuel development across the country’s regions. Total biofuel output is expected to reach 190.3 billion by 2024.
Ethanol production is concentrated mainly in largely agricultural areas such as Henan, Anhui, Jilin and other major grain production locations. The major bioethanol companies in China in 2018 were Henan Tianguan at 700, 000 tonnes capacity per year, Jilin Fuel Ethanol at 600, 000 tonns capacity per year, Cofco (Anhui) and Cofco (Zhaodong) at 400, 000 tons capacity each, and Guangxi Cofco Biomass energy at 200, 000 tons.
China’s increased bioethanol production has been thanks to government backing of suppliers, through direct subsidy, VAT exemptions, and low-interest loans to ethanol producers. In the province of Jilin, the local government gives financial support per ton to convert corn and rice waste to fuel with severe sanctions on those who burn corn waste after harvest while local power plants buy up the waste. The government has also been keen to spur demand by implementing mandatory use programs for ethanol.
Although food security fears led to the cancellation of grain-based ethanol production in 2016, the government has continued to support ethanol from cellulose and crop straw.
In China, food security concerns are drawing bioenergy and circularity closer together.
2022 marked the beginnings of China’s sustainable aviation fuel industry following the country’s first pilot bio jetfuel plant run by Zhenhai Refining & Chemical. The plant produces the fuel from cooking oil and fat and has a processing capacity of 100, 000 metric tons. Oriental Energy, another Chinese company, is looking to develop a 1million mt per year sustainable aviation fuel plant in southern China with US company Honeywell.
Biochemicals and biomaterials
China is the currently the world’s largest chemical producer and is set to become the leading production centre for bio-based chemicals over the next decades. Already, China currently leads as a producer of biopolymers like PLA and PBS. In 2019 total output of biopolymers was 520, 000 tonnes and this jumped to 1 million tonnes in 2020. By 2025, this is projected to reach 4-5 million. China is a world-leading specialist in producing biopolymers xanthan and sodium alginate.
There are strong prospects for scaling biochemical innovations thanks to close relationships between academia and industrial producers. When the Chinese Academy of Sciences developed a new method for synthesising succinic acid raw materials, it was quickly adopted by Shandong LanDian Biological Technology Co., LTD, a company in Shan Dong. It is now expected to produce 500, 000 tons per year, the largest output for the chemical in China.
Bio-fermentation has increased output from 18 million tons in 2010 to 24.3 million tons in 2015. The China based startup BluePHA is an Asian pioneer in commercial production of PHA through microbial fermentation. China’s expansion of their bioreactor sector has strong cultural and historical roots. Fermentation has been used for 9000 years in the region.
Chinese biomaterial development strategy stretches beyond its borders. It’s ‘Made in China” policy emphasises building ties with international collaborators in driving up China’s industrial biotechnology capacity. In one major international biogas collaboration, the Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) partnered with the Foreign Economic Cooperation centre of the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture to develop biomass utilisation. In conjunction with the German Asia-Pacific Business Association, EVONIK, and various Chinese enterprise GIZ, developed a membrane filter tech for biomethane generation and purification from syngas.
Danish companies in particular are reaching out to Chinese bioeconomy actors, especially by providing technological expertise and know-how for turning biomass into energy in Northern China. The Danish Linka Energy and C.F Nielsen are providing boilers and briquetting plants respectively in pilot projects in Jilin province where they are being piloted. Another Danish company, Novozymes, has been building its presence in the Chinese bioengineering and fermentation for at least a decade. In 2008, it expanded its bioethanol-oriented enzyme fermentation facility in Taicang, then the largest of its kind. The Danish-Chinese Business Forum, an independent nonprofit network founded 2005, is working to further strengthen commercial ties between the countries.
US chemicals company Dupont recently divested its biomaterials business to China’s Huafon Group, one of the largest manufacturers of polyurethane materials in the world, for $240 million. In 2022, Huafon group announced that the result of this sale would be the new company Covation Biomaterials, to be hwadwauerted near Newark.
China now spends 2.2. percent of its GDP on science and technology, second after the USA, and now accounts for more international patent applications than the USA. China is catching up quickly with the US within gene-editing patents, especially for medical and agricultural applications. Leading Chinese companies in industrial biotech are Angel Yeast, Meihua Group, Fufeng Group, Vland Biotech, and Tianguan Group.
In agricultural biotechnology, public organisations lead the way in patent application. Between 2001 and 2015, these accounted for 70 percent of total patents in agricultural biotech compared to 16 percent for firms. For biotech relating to manufacturing processes however, firms contribute 35 percent of total patent applications.
China is active in its efforts to grow the industrial and agricultural biotechnology sectors. The CAS National Center for Protein which opened in 2015 in Shangai will lead efforts in food technology. The government has made major investments in these areas and its 2022 bioeconomy five year plan made extensive reference to cultivated meat and synthetic proteins including cel-based meat and fermented meats.
The Beijing Genomics Institute is the largest home-grown Dutch company in China, funded by the Chinese Development Bank. After successfully sequencing 1 percent of the human genome as a participant on the International Human Genome Project, it announced in 2017 that it will create a synthetic biology institute that will focus on DNA storage, bio-manufacturing, and medical genome editing.
Despite growing its growing R&D profile, China will remain dependent on basic research from the West in the term. One Western company profiting from Chinese interest in biotechnology is US gene editing company Thermo Fisher now finds that China is its biggest non-US market.
Although biotechnology and biomanufacturing has been a relatively overlooked dimension in China’s economic rise, its 2021 Five-Year plan indicates that building capacity in its bioindustries is a long term strategy for the Chinese state. It is also significant that the first national plan to concentrate on the bioeconomy was also the first ever to place basic research at the core of its mission. The bioeconomy will be a central pillar in China’s development as it moves from being a manufacturing powerhouse to an R&D hotspot.