The sustainable character of the biobased economy tends not to receive enough attention. Biomass is always more sustainable than fossil raw materials, isn’t it? Often that is so, but not all the time. Whatever the case may be, research is needed so that an objective comparison can be made in different domains.
‘Biomass is under the magnifying glass,’ according to Yvonne van der Meer, associate professor of Biobased Materials at Maastricht University. ‘Often no questions are asked about the provenance of fossil raw materials. Does the oil come from Nigeria or is it offshore? With biomass it is a totally different story. Is there competition with food? What are the effects on soil health or biodiversity? We can complain about this, but that does not get us anywhere. We must be able to prove whether biomass is actually the most sustainable solution for a particular application.’ The latter is far from being a bonus, according to Van der Meer. ‘Sustainability is an important unique selling point. If biobased products score lower on that point than fossil products, this advantage is lost. That is certainly the case with drop-ins. It is a different story for biobased propositions with product properties which perform better.’
Van der Meer believes that sustainability goes further than the environment. Soil health, land use, CO2 emissions and biodiversity (editor’s note: see, for example, the consequences of old-growth felling) are hot issues, but only cover part of the spectrum. ‘It is also about developing the (local) economy and social aspects, such as the consequences for employment or fair pay.’ At the AMIBM (Aachen Maastricht Institute for Biobased Materials), Van der Meer intends investigating the extent to which the above domains – the 3 Ps of people, planet and profit – can be combined in a model. ‘The ultimate aim is to develop an internationally accepted model for calculating the sustainability level of biobased products. We live in a global economy with raw material streams which are transported all over the world.’
Aiming at greater sustainability
In drawing up sustainability criteria for biobased products, Van der Meer advocates an ambitious approach in which the chain players are encouraged to raise the sustainability level. Minimum requirements are needed, but in the end they do not challenge the sector. In the production of biofuels, additional routes which result in products with higher added value (e.g. coatings) can make the entire chain more sustainable and more profitable. Consider sugar valorisation whereby non-energy routes are explored. The fact is that biomass will be ‘harvested’ to an increasing degree from residual and waste streams. So less competition with food and no unnecessary logging, but waste wood or residual streams from the agrofood sector. Alongside wind and solar, biomass will continue to play an important part in achieving the objective of 14 percent renewable energy in 2020.Sustainable biomass
Plenty of challenges
According to Van der Meer, companies, so also the SME, must eventually be able to quantify the above sustainability factors sufficiently so that production routes and products can be compared in terms of people-planet-profit, given that the formula green = sustainable by no means always holds true. Van der Meer believes that there are still several challenges facing the quantification of sustainability. This is partly due to missing or incomplete data and because certain factors such as biodiversity are extremely difficult to measure. It is not just a matter of figures, but also of weighting. Certain factors simply weigh more heavily than others. The development of the local economy in Indonesia plays a different part to that in the United States, just to name an example. ‘Certainly we are also trying at the AMIBM, together with stakeholders, to determine how we can put this into practice. The research in this area is not purely academic; it is actually directly linked to the applications in real life.’
Chemelot focuses on (more) sustainable chemistry
The Dutch chemical industry sees possibilities in making the sector more sustainable. Thus in 2030 the industry aims at a 40 percent reduction in CO2 emissions by using more renewable energy and raw materials.
The large (petro)chemical clusters in the Netherlands have now chosen to achieve these ambitions in their own ways. The same applies to Chemelot in Geleen. Director Robert Claasen: ‘Energy is an important production factor in the chemical industry. That is why in the first instance we want to reduce the energy consumption of the existing facilities. Of course, that is a responsibility of the businesses involved, but as a cluster Chemelot also plays a part in this. We are joining forces in different areas which allows businesses to optimise their processes at a lower cost.’
One way this is being achieved is via the Sitech Asset Health Center. There, measurement data from the industrial plants of customers are monitored with a view to preventive maintenance and energy consumption. Because Chemelot has a central energy supply, it also wants to calibrate this to be more efficient for the businesses at the site, in order to reduce costs and CO2 emissions. Claasen also sees possibilities for renewable energy and raw materials. These routes do have to be scaled up and investigated to see whether they actually deliver benefits. ‘Using CO2 as a raw material is one option, but then as much as possible with renewable energy. Electrification can also be an important option.’
Raw materials deliver a relatively small contribution to CO2 emission targets, but are interesting because they can also result in interesting end products. ‘Last year at Chemelot a Multipurpose Pilot Plant was opened where various businesses can scale up their processes under the one roof. By sharing the accommodation, these projects become more attractive for these businesses. That is a classic example of the synergies we achieve at Chemelot.’
This article was created in collaboration with Source B.