Glossar an Bord der MS Wissenschaft (Quelle: Heiner Witte/Wissenschaft im Dialog)



Algae are grown in so-called photobioreactors where they receive the optimal amount of sunlight, carbon dioxide and water. Unlike energy plants such as rape or maize, algae do not require arable land or fertiliser. Yet they are still able to yield a large volume of biomass in a short time. Algae are promising candidates for biofuel and biodegradable plastics.  


Aquaponics is a compound word formed from aquaculture and hydroponics. Aquaculture is the controlled breeding of water organisms like fish and algae, while hydroponics refers to the cultivation of plants without soil. In aquaponics fish and plants are bred in the same cycle. The fish excretions supply the fertiliser for growing plants, which in turn purify the water for the fish. One of the best-known examples of aquaponics is the “Tomato Fish” project being conducted by researchers in Berlin. It combines the breeding of cichlids with growing tomatoes.  



Bamboo grows quickly, is extremely robust and at the same time very light. The height of this grass species ranges from a few centimetres to forty metres. Its stems supply large amounts of wood, which can be used as a construction material or as an alternative to plastic. Scientists are trying to cultivate bamboo in Europe so as to avoid long delivery routes, which damage the environment. 


In a bioeconomy the latest scientific findings are used to develop new products and processes based on renewable resources. The aim is to end dependency on oil and shift to a bio-based economic system. The concept embraces all sectors that farm, process or trade in plants, animals and micro-organisms. These include agriculture and forestry, fisheries and aquaculture, the timber and textiles industries and parts of the chemical and pharmaceutical industries as well as the energy sector. 


The term biomass is not clearly defined in ecology. It refers to the entirety of the organic substance stored in plants, animals and micro-organisms. In the context of renewable energy, biomass means all organic substances of plant or animal origin that can be used as energy sources. 


A bioreactor is a container in which specially grown micro-organisms or animal or plant cells are cultivated in a nutrient medium. The aim is to harvest either the cells themselves (or parts of them) or one of their metabolic products. Enzymes may be used for this purpose. Bioreactors are sometimes also called fermenters.  


Carbon Cycle

Carbon is a special element because it occurs in all spheres of the Earth: in rocks, soil, the air, water and living beings. It is involved in numerous chemical reactions and physical processes and is exchanged between the different spheres. Together, these processes make up the global carbon cycle. The natural carbon cycle is a system in equilibrium. Through the combustion of fossil carbon reserves (such as coal or oil) carbon that was previously bound is released. An excess of carbon dioxide makes the oceans more acidic and intensifies the natural greenhouse effect in the atmosphere, which leads to global warming.  

Circular Economy

The idea of a circular economy is that no materials or resources should be lost as waste. To start with, materials are designed to have as long a life as possible and bring maximum use. When materials are used once or several times through recycling and then burned to generate energy this is called cascade use. 


Currently, we still use coal to generate electricity and heat and to make steel. Most of the coal used in Germany today comes from Australia. When we burn coal, the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) released is particularly high.  

Coffee grounds

Every day we throw huge amounts of coffee grounds in the rubbish. But coffee grounds are actually an important raw material. They can be converted into chemical intermediate products, which can then be further refined in a variety of ways. As a result, coffee grounds can be used as a bio-based substitute for oil-based plastics or other resources in short supply.


Cork is robust, flexible and highly versatile. It is made from the bark of cork oaks. After twenty years the cork oaks are large enough for their bark to be peeled. The bark from the first harvest is very hard and particularly suitable as an insulation material. The soft material used to make bottle corks comes from subsequent harvests. 


Efficiency, Consistency, Sufficiency

The terms efficiency, consistency and sufficiency refer to three different strategies for sustainable development. Efficiency aims to obtain a greater yield from raw materials and natural resources, often via technical innovations. One example is a company that uses the warmed-up cooling water generated during production processes to heat a factory hall. Consistency denotes technologies and materials that protect nature and are more environmentally friendly than those previously used. Cycles that run from production to reuse with intermediate phases of use and recycling should be circular as far as possible, one example being a company that sells drinks in returnable bottles rather than in TetraPak cartons. Sufficiency aims to reduce use of resources and materials by decreasing human consumption and use of services. Companies assess their products in terms of their durability and “reparability”, so that a broken vacuum cleaner, for instance, need not simply be thrown away.  

Energy Crops

Energy crops are plants grown specifically to supply energy. Alongside maize, these include rape, sunflowers, oil palms, poplars and wild plants. In most cases these crops are used to produce biogas or biofuel. Maize has the highest yield. The German government’s sustainability regulations stipulate that biofuels can only be categorised as sustainable if they save at least 35 per cent in greenhouse gases compared with fossil fuels. Moreover, they may not be grown on land with a high level of biodiversity or where a lot of carbon is stored. Energy crops grown on fertile arable land pose direct competition to food and animal feed production. 


An enzyme is a protein that accelerates specific biochemical reactions. That is why enzymes are also called biocatalysts. They have a central role to play in all metabolic processes in organisms, from bacteria to human beings. Enzymes also have a wide range of technological applications. They are present, for example, in washing and cleaning agents, in toothpaste and in many foods. They are also used in the production of drugs. 



Gas and oil deposits can also be found in rock. In order to extract them from these sources, deep drilling is used. Chemicals and pressure are used to widen cracks in the rock and extract the gas or oil stored there. This process is known as fracking. There is a risk that the chemicals used to extract the oil and gas will end up in the groundwater.  


Mould generally has a bad name in households, since mouldy food is inedible. In the laboratory, on the other hand, fungi are prized specimens on account of their complex metabolisms.  To produce them on a large scale, researchers are trying to find the optimal growing conditions. Fungi have long been used to make antibiotics and cheese, but we can also use them to produce renewable resources. Because fungi have such varied metabolisms they can be used to make a very diverse range of products.  



Gas is used to generate electricity and heat and as fuel for vehicles. It consists mainly of methane and hydrocarbons. When it is burned a mixture of carbon dioxide (CO2) and steam is released. This means that gas emissions contain less CO2 than those from coal.

Genome Editing

Genome editing is a bit like editing a text or a film, only in this case it means modifying the genome of micro-organisms or of plant, animal or human cells. One of the most important editing methods is CRISPR-Cas, which works like genetic scissors. Tools like these from molecular biology can be used to switch genes off or on or to insert new sequences. They can be used in fields such as medicine or animal and plant breeding.  


Grasses play a big role in bioeconomic research. Most areas of grass can be easily cultivated and can be left untended for a long time. This reduces the risk of erosion. Grass is efficient, low-maintenance and high-yield. It will also grow on less fertile soil, which is an additional advantage in the era of climate change with longer periods of drought. Grasses, especially grass fibres, can be used as a raw material for making paper. They require less water and nutrients than wood. Silos have an important role to play in processing grass, because this is where the grass ferments. Researchers are working on using silage to develop biodegradable plastic. Grass silage can also be used to generate gas – in biogas facilities.



Hemp fibres are so tear-resistant that they have been used for centuries to make textiles. The strong hemp leaves suppress weed growth, so no herbicides are required to grow it. New applications are being sought for this versatile plant. However, because certain types of hemp can also be used to make drugs, its cultivation is strictly regulated. 



Lignite is used to generate electricity and heat in power stations. In Germany lignite is extracted mainly from open-cast mines. To gain access to the lignite, large areas of countryside have to be cleared and even villages often have to make way for open-cast mines. The fuel value of lignite is less than that of coal, but when it is burned carbon dioxide (CO2) is likewise released.



Mosses’ ability to adapt to extreme environments makes them very interesting for bioeconomic research.  They do not have roots but instead obtain nutrients from the air. Scientists are studying the extent to which they can, for example, filter fine dust particles and carbon dioxide out of the air. Growing moss indoors improves the indoor climate and provides thermal insulation. 



Oil is used for a wide range of purposes: for heating, for fuel and also to make plastics, paint and medicines. Extracting oil involves deep drilling – on land or in the sea – and then pumping it up to the surface. There is always the danger that the oil will leak and contaminate the soil or the sea. When oil is burned, carbon dioxide (CO2) is released.


Russian Dandelion

Russian dandelion is similar to our native dandelion and is relatively hardy. The milky substance found in all parts of the plant contains rubber. It can therefore be used to make tyres. The demand for rubber is growing, yet the number of rubber trees is dwindling. The plan is therefore to cultivate Russian dandelion in Germany on a large scale. This will also make delivery routes shorter.  



Sustainability or sustainable development means satisfying present needs in a way that does not limit the options of future generations. Three dimensions are given equal weight here: sustainable activity should be economically efficient, socially just and ecologically viable. The term sustainability originated in forestry and means that trees should be felled for timber only at the rate that they can be replaced.



Uranium is used for the fuel rods in nuclear reactors. It is also a non-renewable fossil fuel. Extracting uranium out of the rock consumes a great deal of energy. Before it can be used, it usually needs to be chemically enriched and converted into a solid. Uranium is poisonous and the radioactivity it emits can causes genetic damage.  



Waste denotes substances that are generated during product manufacture and consumption and are not reused. Bioeconomy regards them as raw materials from which reusable materials can be extracted. Waste thus becomes the starting point for new products. The EU’s Waste Framework Guidelines from 2008 contain clear provisions for how to deal with waste: avoidance should take priority over repair, and recycling should take priority over other use such as incineration or energy generation. Waste disposal is the very last option.  


Wood is one of the most important renewable resources and it offers a whole range of applications for the bioeconomy. Examples include paper composite systems and high-tech products such as nano-cellulose or wood-based materials for 3D printing. Nevertheless, we still need to find a strategy that protects the forests while meeting the higher demand for wood.