The CoE was committed to developing new biotechnological and chemical methods for the efficient production of chemicals, materials and fuels from renewable natural resources.
The replacement of oil by field residues, byproducts from industrial processes and other plant materials can help reduce both industry dependence on fossil raw materials and carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere.
“White” or industrial biotechnology combined with “green chemistry” has a vital role to play in developing sustainable production processes that can help save energy and the environment.
A considerable improvement is needed in the efficiency of bioprocesses before they can be considered a serious alternative to petrochemical industrial processes. One of the challenges is how to get microbes, i.e. the production organisms used in bioprocesses, to convert the sugars contained in biomass into the required compounds as effectively as possible.
This development effort requires a wide range of skills and knowledge from the biosciences to engineering. The CoE brought together the high level of expertise available at VTT Finland in the fields of biotechnology (molecular biology, enzymology, bioprocess technology), chemistry (synthetics, polymer chemistry), systems biology (bioinformatics, mathematical modelling) and engineering sciences (micromechanics, measurement technology, nanotechnology). For decades, VTT Finland has been a world pioneer in technologies based on renewable natural resources.
The CoE’s aim was to develop microbial cells that will produce useful new compounds out of plant biomass sugars. Sugar acids and their derivates are produced by applying the tools of genetic technology to engineer the metabolism of microbes. They have numerous industrial applications, for instance as precursor molecules in the production of new bioplastics.
Another important objective was to develop sensitive measurement techniques and to shed new light on the basic function of microbial cells. Work was underway at the CoE to develop new measuring devices based on micro- and nanotechnologies that can be used to measure and control the productivity of microbes in bioreactors during production. This research used genome-wide and systems biology methods, which can help gain a comprehensive understanding of the function of microbial cells in production circumstances.
The ultimate aim was to develop mathematical models of cell functions. These models can be used to predict the productivity of microbial cells – and thus as an aid in metabolic engineering – as well as in the design and management of optimal bioprocesses.
The CoE was headed by Research Professor Merja Penttilä from VTT Finland. A major focus of her research is on cell mechanisms at molecular level: by engineering these mechanisms, it is possible to step up the microbial production of proteins and metabolites, particularly with yeasts and moulds. Recently, Professor Penttilä has worked on developing second generation bioethanol products from lignocellulose-containing raw materials.
Professor Penttilä has coordinated several national and international research projects and worked closely with leading Finnish and international business companies in the United States, Canada, Japan and Europe. She has published around 150 original scientific articles and has more than 40 patents and patent applications to her name. She is currently member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Finnish Chemical Industry and of the Governing Board of the Sustainable Chemistry Technology Platform.
The CoE had a staff of around 40 working in different cluster programmes, including the VTT biotechnology cluster, energy and forest technology cluster and the microtechnologies and sensors knowledge cluster.