Biotechnology is a diverse and thriving sector which overlaps with many industries, from energy to medicine, manufacturing to materials.

By taking advantage of minute but powerful biological factories – living cells – we can produce organic monomers and novel polymers with remarkable properties.

These factories don’t run on petrochemicals but sunlight, carbon dioxide and renewable feedstocks, such as agricultural waste. The benefits for materials scientists are twofold – they can create exciting new materials and these materials have the green credentials consumers and government are calling for.

For example polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) are polyesters produced by bacteria. A research group in Germany recently found high-grade rubber could be extracted from dandelions. Natural fibres from flax plants are already being used to build extremely strong yet lightweight panels that rival fibreglass. Production of bio-based PET, which uses bioethanol from sugar cane, will exceed five million tonnes by 2020.

Advances like these have real potential to change the way materials scientists do things, and they are being made every day. These are not just niche materials. These are genuine alternatives to the petroleum-based materials which, as we all know, suffer from price fluctuations and are far from environmentally friendly. Bio-based materials can and do rival traditional materials and can be used to develop new products and replace existing ones.

The UK is a world leader. At a recent exhibition in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Business and Energy Minister Michael Fallon highlighted that research and development in the UK is “allowing us to lead the way in industrial biotechnology and find innovative ways to replace traditional manufacturing products and processes with cheaper, greener and often more functional alternatives.”

But this expertise, in the UK and around the world, is found in a range of disciplines – biochemistry, engineering, cell biology and materials science – making collaboration both difficult and necessary. Researchers must recognise when and where their work has the potential to impact on another sector and forge links, both with collaborators and potential customers. Groups such as the Industrial Biotechnology Leadership Forum have been set up to foster such collaboration.

The ball has started rolling and businesses are turning to industrial biotechnology to increase efficiency, be more sustainable and raise profits. This recognition of this potential by industry comes alongside increased government funding and a host of new technologies coming to market. Now is the time to embrace this opportunity.