Willem Sederel and Rop Zoetemeyer, chairman and vice-chairman respectively of Biobased Delta, have just returned from the EFIB congress where they attended the signing of a cooperation agreement between four international clusters, including Biobased Delta (box).
Sederel emphasises that international cooperation is one of the means which the Delta uses to realise its ambitions. ‘Biobased Delta and IAR had already been cooperating for a while, from the start of 2014 to be precise, working together on information exchange, project management, innovation, R&D and the implementation of high-tech projects. Via IAR, which already had contacts in England and Germany, lines of communication were extended to BioVale (York) and Bioeconomy Cluster (Sachsen-Anhalt). The idea is to join forces in 3BI, the name of the joint venture. We also want to present ourselves more as a party towards the European Union in Brussels. The same applies to overseas contacts, for example at fairs and/or congresses in Canada or Brazil. International consortiums can also be formed more easily through closer cooperation on the larger, European project applications. The clusters operate in various areas to a greater or lesser extent. Take the development of bio-aromatics for example, an area in which IAR, the Bio-Economy Cluster and Biobased Delta are active. Since IAR was set up more from a primary sector angle in view of the economy in northern France, and BBD more with a chemical slant, you can benefit from each other’s complementary expertise.’
Agrofood highly active
Internationalisation is not an aim in itself, as Sederel emphasises. Ultimately Biobased Delta is a regional cluster which plays a connecting, facilitating role in the world of agrofood and chemistry, and that explains the slogan Agro meets chemistry.
‘It has been difficult for businesses from the two sectors to get into a dialogue with each other, and it still is,’ says Zoetemeyer. ‘The agrofood companies which are at the start of the chain are very active and also invest in the development and upscaling of non-food applications. Cosun, for example, has established a separate business unit for this purpose. Things are slightly calmer on the chemicals front. Why is that? Of course, the low oil price does not help. The competitive position of the European chemical sector is still under par, and this pushes the focus more to other matters. The budgets of many business cases in the green chemical sector can still not be calculated; it is also a matter of a careful and critical search for biobased applications which do have a realistic chance of success.’
Levelling out the playing field
The scale of the process and the availability of attractively priced feedstocks play a determining, if not decisive role in order to compete with the (petro) chemical sector. The feedstock situation is still not optimal in Europe or in the Netherlands.
Sederel: ‘Subsidies for increasing the value of biomass-to-energy make biomass too expensive for chemical or material purposes. What does help is creating a level playing field, something the Corbey Commission also advocates: either abolish the subsidies on bio energy or subsidise biomass flows for creation of higher value: transport fuels, chemicals and materials. Stopping the subsidies for bio energy is not an option, because the Netherlands would otherwise never achieve the objectives related to CO2 reduction. But we all agree that using biomass directly for energy provides the least added value. There are real possibilities, for example in sectors which depend on carbon in transport fuels, such as aviation and shipping and heavy road transport. That does not mean that there is no place for energy, but preferably not at the start, but at the end of the cascading.’
Inexpensive and available feedstocks are not enough; they have to be converted on a larger scale into sugars and then into intermediates, according to Zoetemeyer. One of his responsibilities in the Delta is the Redefinery project. ‘Biorefinery is the key technology. Under the name Redefinery, we are working on three planned biorefinery facilities based on lignocellulose. There are still several technical challenges. But we will solve them in the end. Setting up a consortium presents a larger challenge: a group in which all links in the value chain – biomass, chemical, materials, energy, fuels – participate and invest. Four to five companies (big players) are active in each chain in South-western Netherlands. Of course we have already been talking over our plans with these companies. They are positive, certainly because they have a larger selection as far as supply is concerned and are thus less dependent on fluctuating oil prices.’
Zoetemeyer also sees a role for smaller-scale biorefinery, such as the process in which AkzoNobel and Suikerunie will investigate whether they can use local biomass, sugar beet sugar, for the efficient production of chemicals.
Sugar beet is a feedstock with potential not only in Northern Netherlands, but also in the Biobased Delta – or as Sederel calls it, the ‘Sugar Delta’. That is not just a conclusion from the report published by Deloitte in 2014 on the competitiveness of the ‘unbeatable beet’, but is also acknowledged in the industry. Thus Marc Verbruggen, CEO of PLA producer NatureWorks, stood up for sugar beet earlier in Agro&Chemie, and first generation sugars in a more general sense.
Sederel: ‘The Biobased Delta has active large players which can supply sugars. Not only from sugar beet, but also based on maize, wheat and starch (from the potato-processing industry). There are also projects in the Delta which investigate whether sugars can be extracted on a large scale from algae and seaweed in particular.’
Even though sugar, for instance from sugar beet, can develop into a feedstock which might attract international business, it is not the only trail, according to Zoetemeyer. ‘We talked earlier about lignocellulose. There are other residual flows the industry can handle, such as CO2. It is already being used in the food industry and horticulture, among others. Using biotechnology you could also convert CO2 into acetic acid or ethanol. The chemical sector is interested in these pathways, partly from the point of view of costs, and partly because it will result in products which are more environmentally friendly. As far as that goes, it is a great connection between the biobased economy and the circular economy.’
The leading bio-economy clusters in the Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom and Germany have joined forces in the 3BI intercluster (Brokering Bio-Based Innovation).
The aim is to support European companies to access new markets based on renewable raw materials successfully.
The cooperation agreement was signed in Brussels at the end of October at EFIB, the ‘European Forum for Industrial Biotechnology and the Bioeconomy’.
3BI is a strategic European partnership that builds on the complementary strengths of four regional innovation clusters: Biobased Delta (Netherlands), BioEconomy Cluster (Germany), BioVale (England) and Industries & Agro Ressources (IAR, France).
All four clusters use biorefinery to convert biomass flows into materials, chemicals, fuels, food and animal feed. They intend to work together on research, development and implementation of new technologies for the conversion of biomass and waste flows into value-added products and applications.
Willem Sederel: ‘For several years Biobased Delta has been working on international collaboration with leading regions in the world. Therefore I am very pleased with the establishment of 3BI as a European intercluster for long lasting collaboration with the leading clusters in the UK, Germany and France. This will boost durable business opportunities for the next decades.’