Living on Air: The Future of Biosustainability and the Apollo 13 Mindset

Thursday 06 Jul 23

"The future is not just a continuation of the past. We need a shift in our mindset and our technologies," states the Senior Vice President of the Novo Nordisk Foundation, Claus Felby, while emphasizing the urgent need for mission-oriented thinking that was mirrored in the Apollo missions.

In the last months, droughts have devastated the southern parts of Europe, wildfires have spread in Canada and in the Arctic glaziers and ice sheets are continuing to shrink. The effects of the ever-growing climate crisis are evident all around us.

But how can humankind continue to sustain itself while making the least possible impact on nature? How can we and future generations live biosustainably and thus use biological methods and technologies to produce food, energy and materials in a scalable and sustainable manner?

As the Senior Vice President of the Novo Nordisk Foundation sees it, scaling potential is key:

"If you want to create a more sustainable world, you need scalability and impact potential as part of your thinking from the get-go. Research and knowledge are key, but research papers alone are only part of the way forward." says Claus Felby.

Reflecting on the development of biosustainability, Claus Felby speaks to the role of carbon:

"It's all the stuff we produce from that. If it’s food, if it’s chemicals or materials, it’s all carbon-based. Biology is the core of our supply and use of carbon as a resource. A major challenge and opportunity lie in finding new carbon sources instead of relying on sugar. Sugar comes from use of land, and with 10 billion people there just is not enough land”

Houston, we have a problem

According to Claus Felby, continuing to use sugar as a source of carbon is clearly not the answer as the production requires wide areas of land. Around 2 billion hectares of land worldwide needs to be freed up to secure future biodiversity and create the green transition with sugar as carbon source and we just don´t have that. Claus Felby points out:

“The hot topic is how can we use CO2 instead of sugar as a carbon source and in that way move from using land to using the atmosphere. It is a huge transition of our basic technologies and resources. How can you live on air like plants, but be more efficient and take up less space? That's basically what we need to do. Use the atmosphere as a resource to solve the global challenges. And we can do it!”

Taking inspiration from the Apollo missions, Felby likens the urgency of our situation to circumstances under which the crew of Apollo 13 had to fix their malfunctioning spacecraft.

" You can say Houston, we have a problem. In many ways it is like that because we don't have much time to fix the challenges for spaceship Earth. They had a few hours to fix it on Apollo 13. We have a few decades to lay the foundation and new technologies," Felby warns while acknowledging that the journey ahead requires transformation and evolution in thinking, like the Apollo mission teams:

"We need new knowledge from lots of fundamental research, but the way we differentiate between fundamental and applied research often keeps us inside the box, and we need to think in a joint, mission orientated way," he urges.

Room for optimism

Moving forward, the Senior Vice President foresees the integration of biology and physics as a potential next groundbreaking step.

"Biology is wonderful for using CO2 as a resource. Imagine efficiencies of more than 90%, energy transfer in biological CO2 reduction pathways involves a lot of quantum mechanical phenomena with no heat loss involved. It's going to be a different world. There's a lot of room for optimism," Claus Felby enthuses.

However, he warns of the dangers of getting lost in the "omics" and losing sight of the overall goal and needs:

"It requires a lot of the individual researcher, research leaders and institutions to steer the course, while creating space for fundamental research and creativity. It also requires a high element of risk, accepting bold and novel ideas. The young researchers with their fresh minds and creativity are extremely important. And there will be lots of failures moving forward, but we get wiser with each step.
We have a strong starting point. The development of cell factories, big data tools and analytics enables us not only to go new ways but also to speed up discoveries, translation and innovation. 

A more open and cooperative approach going forward

Looking forward, Felby advocates for a more open and cooperative approach between researchers, industry, government, and foundations. This will involve rethinking the evaluation of research, promoting early connections between startups and established industries, and a culture of shared knowledge and facilities.

However, Felby also stresses the need for practical solutions and infrastructure to support these innovations:

"Without innovation and scale-up, we're not going anywhere. We need easy access to hubs with scaling facilities, knowledge, and technical support. Europe is fragmented in investments; instead of having numerous underfunded national scaling initiatives, we should have fewer and bigger."

A lighthouse in biotechnology

DTU Biosustain is one of the research institutions that is taking the lead in creating a more sustainable future and according to the Senior Vice President of the Novo Nordisk Foundation, DTU Biosustain and its researchers holds a key to a brighter future:

"We see DTU Biosustain as a lighthouse in biotechnology, a first mover globally. The results and development have been impressive. And to all the young researchers at DTU Biosustain and all over the world, -the future needs you. It´s not a moon shot we are facing, it´s several earth shots," concludes Claus Felby.



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