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Biden administration plans to spur biological production of fuels, chemicals and plastics

President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference in the State Dining Room of the White House on Nov. 9, 2022.   (Ting Shen/Bloomberg)
By Riley Griffin Bloomberg

The White House is preparing to release plans for building U.S. capacity to make plastics, chemicals, foods, fuels and other products using biological processes in an effort to keep pace in a global biomanufacturing race.

Prompted by a September executive order and supported by more than $1 billion in Defense Department funding, the Biden administration program was to release documents Wednesday outlining biomanufacturing and biotechnology targets.

Goals include using living organisms to make at least 30% of chemicals and to be able to displace more than 90% of plastics within the next two decades, according to documents reviewed by Bloomberg News.

Bio-based processes have the potential to generate as much as $4 trillion in annual U.S. economic impact over the next 10 to 20 years, according to a McKinsey & Co. projection cited in the documents.

While the country is a leader in the science that underpins many of these bio-based products, the administration wants to build the manufacturing capacity and workforce needed to produce them in industrial quantities and at a level that can compete with other countries.

“The current network of facilities in the United States does not meet demand and lags overseas networks, driving some companies to conduct scale-up efforts abroad,” according to a Department of Energy report among the documents compiled by the White House.

The White House’s plan includes reports from the Departments of Energy, Agriculture, Commerce, Health and Human Services and the National Science Foundation, along with other federal agencies.

Separately, the Department of Defense released its own biomanufacturing strategy geared at guiding a previously announced $1.2 billion investment in domestic biomanufacturing infrastructure.

“If you can imagine it, you can probably make it through biology,” said Kate Sixt, principal director for biosecurity in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. “That’s the promise of biomanufacturing.”

Long-term Biden administration targets include displacing plastics and commercial polymers with bio-based alternatives, meeting at least 30% of chemical demand through biomanufacturing and increasing manufacturing of cell-based medicine while cutting their costs 10-fold.

By the end of the decade, the administration is aiming for production of 3 billion gallons of a bio-based aircraft fuel while reducing agricultural methane admissions by capturing biogases and better managing manure.

In five years, it aims to sequence the genomes of a million microbial species, gain understanding of the function of at least 80% of newly discovered genes and produce at least a quarter of active pharmaceutical ingredients in certain common medicines.

These are goals, not commitments, the White House cautioned, calling for government collaboration with private companies and national laboratories. To some they’re ambitious, and others, outlandish.

“I love it when I see big, bold, barely feasible goals, because then it tells you what you need to do to start creating the future you want,” said Arati Prabhakar, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology, which will lead implementation.

The plan also has the potential to significantly reduce dependence on fossil fuels, she said.

“It’s sort of crazy when you think about it, we’re digging up dead dinosaur molecules to make plastic and other materials so integral to the world that we live in,” she said in an interview before announcing the goals at the Advanced Bioeconomy Leadership Conference in Washington.

The Defense Department will invest $1 billion over five years to establish the domestic biomanufacturing industrial base, $270 million over five years for a program focused on supply-chain resilience, and $200 million to support biosecurity and cybersecurity, according to its report.

The Pentagon said it’s focused on addressing “critical shortfalls in military capability and building an enduring advantage in biomanufacturing by retaining domestic capability.”

The department is trying to head off more situations where U.S. manufacturers might have to go to China and other foreign countries for key products such as semiconductors.

“Not only are we seeing investment in infrastructure for chips and clean tech, but biomanufacturing is drawing from that same industrial base,” said Elisabeth Reynolds, the former special assistant to President Joe Biden for manufacturing and economic development at the National Economic Council, who launched the biomanufacturing initiative last year.

“We’re in a position where the U.S. can be a competitor, but it has to happen now for national and physical security.”