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The chemical industry is facing a radical turnaround: from fossil fuels as the trusted basis for polymers to renewable (bio)raw materials, waste streams and/or recycled materials. And from linear value chains to a circular industry based on value cycles. Only in this way is the ambition to be fully circular by 2050 achievable.
Pierre Gielen

That is what the new Growth Fund proposal Biobased Circular (BBC), submitted by Green Chemistry, New Economy (GCNE) and TKI Agri&Food, is about. The aim: to deliver at least five value cycles in the coming years, including research, pilot plants and demonstration plants up to relevant industrial scale:

  • Lactic acid as feedstock for both the food industry and sustainable biobased plastic production;
  • Biobased monoethylene glycol (MEG) from sugar beet, to make the polyester industry more sustainable;
  • Production of biobased resins from citric acid and glycol, e.g. for the furniture industry or building materials;
  • Bio-aromatics from plant waste streams for paints, coatings and insulation materials, for example;
  • The production of PHAs, degradable biopolymers from wastewater.

These are certainly not just technological innovations; they are proven technologies and the companies involved want to be up and running in the foreseeable future. To make a real impact, entire value chains in application areas such as textiles, construction and packaging will have to be transformed. This will contribute substantially to the growth of the Dutch economy and to tackling societal challenges such as the climate, nitrogen and energy crises. By working together simultaneously, systematically and across sectors on fundamental research, applied research, piloting and demonstration, a whole new industry sector will emerge.

Arnold Stokking, director of Brightsite and chairman of GCNE: “The challenges are broad and complex, but the industry believes in them and is also willing to invest heavily in them. For example, a joint sum of around €600 million is being put on the table for the realisation of demo plants. On top of that, the initiators are asking for a contribution of €300 million from the Dutch National Growth Fund*”.

The initiative is widely supported, by European leading companies (Corbion, Avantium, Cosun and Renewi), promising scale-up companies (Paques, Relement, Plantics and others) and leading research institutions (Wageningen University & Research, University of Groningen, TNO and others). “In addition, we also seek cooperation with the consortia around other Growth Fund proposals, such as Circular Plastics. Together, we have a nice palette of raw materials with which to produce renewable materials. But our primary focus is on biogenic carbon.”

Displacing petroleum

The premise is that biogenic feedstocks can displace petroleum as a raw material. By maximising the plant molecular structure of carbohydrates, high feedstock and energy efficiency are achieved. Recyclability and degradability are also an integral part of material and application development. In this way, efficient circularity is achieved, in other words: minimal environmental impact.

The bio-based raw materials that should make this possible can partly come from green waste streams, such as agricultural residues and pruning waste from nature reserves. They can also be grown specifically for these applications. In this way, they provide a boost to arable farming and offer farmers prospects for new crops that do not have to compete with food production. Kees de Gooijer, director of TKI Agri&Food: “We have calculated that less than 1 per cent of the acreage is needed for the chemical industry. That is quite feasible.”

Extensive crops

So which crops are involved? “Sugar beet remains attractive; there is no crop that sequesters as much CO2 – 40 tonnes per hectare. But it is an intensive crop and that also brings disadvantages, such as emissions. We therefore want to gradually replace this crop with nature-inclusive cultivation around vulnerable areas in the Netherlands, and with residual streams and recycled materials.”

A promising extensive crop, for example, is Miscanthus (Elephant grass). It is currently only grown in a few trial fields. The challenge here is persuading farmers to grow alternative crops on a large scale. De Gooijer: “The farmer will not cultivate if there is no off-take and the off-take is not there if the farmer does not cultivate. So to make it attractive, investments in the whole chain are needed: in processing the crops, in biorefinery and in finding applications for the residues from the biocrops, such as lignin and fibres.”

The stakes are high enough. Industry needs to become more sustainable and farmers need a new perspective for the future. They find each other in Biobased Circular. The facts speak in favour of this programme. If the Netherlands produces polymers and applications and even succeeds in becoming a market leader in this field, up to €3 billion in GDP growth should be feasible, with 2.5 million tonnes of annual CO2 savings and 7,000 new jobs. Moreover, by using European crops and residues, resource independence will be achieved.

The Biobased Circular Growth Fund proposal was submitted on 2 February. For more information, visit the Green Chemistry, New Economy website.

Image: Cinemanikor/Shutterstock

With the National Growth Fund, the Dutch government is investing €20 billion between 2021 and 2025 in projects that will ensure long-term economic growth.