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Biomass suppliers, developers of pretreatment technology and buyers of applications often have problems in finding each other. That makes it difficult to realise cost-effective business cases. The half-open innovation facility of the BioTreatCenter should make this a lot easier.
Richard Bezemer

Deep eutectic solvents (DES) are organic solvents which should extract cellulose and lignin from the pulp fraction in a mild way. The article ‘Game Changer for the Paper Industry?’ (Dutch, ed.) in the previous edition of Agro&Chemie described them as the sustainable alternative for extraction processes which still require high temperatures, high pressure and many chemicals.

Although the research work on this pretreatment technology is still taking place on a laboratory scale, a great deal of potential is already being attributed to DES mixtures. Not just for the paper industry, but also for other markets for cellulose-based products, such as textiles and materials. The biomass suppliers at the start of the chain are also expressing their interest, for example because these mild extraction processes could also enable proteins to be extracted from grass.


Research into new methods with the deep eutectic solvents means they are still years from any application, but a great deal of practical research is underway into optimising existing techniques as well. The major driver here is extracting several raw materials simultaneously from a biomass flow. Not just cellulose, but also hemi-cellulose and lignin. These are components which you can extract in good, consistent quality from separate fractions by optimising mild acidic and/or mild basic process conditions, temperatures and resting times. Selectivity is essential to this: the more selectively you can extract, the purer the products you can obtain, and that in turn is more advantageous for any subsequent step.

Mild extraction is one of the chemical methods used for pretreating biomass. There are many other techniques which can produce changes in the chemical and/or physical properties of (components in) the biomass. Examples are mechanical procedures, raising or lowering pressure, raising or lowering temperature, using enzymes or micro-organisms (bacteria, moulds) and physical procedures (microwaves, ultrasonic sound).

Businesses can’t find each other

Essential to the realisation of cost-effective business cases for biobased applications is the right choice of pretreatment techniques, or a combination of them, which best suit the biomass flow and the intended product. It is also essential to optimise those techniques to be as efficient as possible or to develop them (further), if necessary. This is where biomass suppliers, developers of pretreatment technology and buyers of applications often have problems in finding each other.

Patrick Lemmens, Programme manager Biobased Economy at the Greenport Venlo Innovation Center, can see this too. ‘Take a random sweet pepper grower who would like to do something with his residual flows. He has no idea which technology partner, with which pretreatment technology, offers the greatest chance of success. The other way round too, I see many technology companies that have developed a pretreatment technique for one particular application. For them the problem is finding new suppliers of biomass and new buyers.’

Half-open innovation

With a view to closing the chain from plant (the raw biomass) to customer (the applications) and making the biobusiness more efficient, the BioTreatCenter (BTC) will start up next year in Venlo. The BTC is embedded in the ‘biobased ecosystem’ Source B (see box), and will be set up as a half-open innovation facility for entrepreneurs who are active in upgrading raw biomass into semi-finished products and/or end products. In addition to entrepreneurs, various knowledge institutions are involved in the initiative (including Maastricht University, Wageningen UR/ACRRES and HAS University of Applied Sciences Venlo).

The numerous possibilities with biomass and the opportunities for a wide range of applications makes this theme particularly suitable for cooperation with and between diverse knowledge institutions with specific focal points and points for development. ‘What we want is for innovative entrepreneurs to develop their own business case and/or technology further and renew it, possibly in cooperation with fellow users of the facility,’ clarifies Patrick Lemmens. ‘The BTC is expressly not a pilot plant. I see pilot plants more as locations where you highlight one or more techniques in the hope that other parties will start to use them. Those kinds of facilities are having quite a hard time; they do not attract enough customers. That’s not such a surprise, since the drivers can be found much more in the technology corner, and not so much with the providers of biomass.’

Two birds

Putting technology and product developers with their R&D together helps you kill two birds with one stone, according to Lemmens. ‘The grower with his biomass flow actually has a one-stop-shop at his disposal. He can find out very efficiently the technology and market his product can perform best with, and how he can obtain the most value from his residual flow. On the other hand, the technology developers can benefit from being so close to each other.

Half-open innovation stands for developing together with a low wall between. You can stay behind that wall partly to do your own thing, but by exchanging expertise and combining R&D you can also get moving in the right direction faster and more efficiently. Working together cleverly with various knowledge institutions can introduce and transfer the right know-how to the right place at the right time.’

Drying profitably

Pretreatment technologies which can be developed further in the BTC include small-scale refinery, direct processing and extraction and drying techniques. The knowledge of and expertise in this matters, currently present scattered across individual businesses, can expand considerably if they are developed further jointly.

Initiatives from the primary sector can also be taken up at the BTC. ‘The mushroom sector, with strong representation in the province of Limburg, wants to stop getting rid of the mushroom compost (see Dutch article on spent mushroom compost in this edition, ed.) and upgrade it into a soil improver, as ready-to-use pellets, for example. The mushroom compost has to be dried for this purpose, and the current options in drying techniques do not provide a cost-effective business case. By working together on this, a cost-effective solution can possibly be achieved faster,’ according to Patrick Lemmens.

Closing the entire chain

Another example is the biorefinery process developed by NewFoss for converting leafy and grass biomass into lignocellulose. That technology was developed in the first instance to make highly clean fibres which can be used as raw material for the paper and cardboard industry. The potential of this approach is huge. NewFoss is already actively developing the technology further with a view to refining other bioflows. The high-protein sap flows which are created during the production of the fibres offer great potential for further applications.

Fermentation is a relatively low-value application. More value can be extracted from sap flows by extracting specific proteins. However, the techniques to do this are not part of the core expertise of NewFoss. The company could decide to put a lot of its own money and time into it. Alternatively, it can tackle the business case for the proteins jointly with parties in the BTC which already have expertise in extraction of constituents from fluids. ‘In that case, you can use the laboratory to investigate which high-quality proteins are present in the sap flow. If you also have the technology to extract those proteins and you have the link (via Source B) to the market for proteins, then you have closed the chain fully.’

Flying start

The first phase of the BTC project (established with financial support from the Province of Limburg, among other things), in which the concept was developed and the feasibility tested, has now been completed. Businesses that were approached initially, including NewFoss, have expressed their commitment to the next phase, in which the facilities will take shape at the Venlo Green Park. ‘What we have noticed is that the businesses prefer to go further than building a standard incubator building. The idea is to realise a kind of ‘living lab’, with the building made partially from sustainable biobased materials. That gives you a building which can be the subject of research itself (sustainability, health, CO2 neutral, biobased) and you also have a showpiece which ties in beautifully with the work taking place in the building,’ says Patrick Lemmens.

‘It’s just that it takes quite a lot of time to construct that kind of building. Given the volume of interest, it is time we don’t seem to have. We simply have to get started in 2016. We have to start the programme of activities and initiatives as well as develop the physical environment. This could also be done in a temporary facility. Or possibly in the Villa Flora, another building at Venlo Greenpark. The Brightlabs laboratory facilities are already being built there. Of course, that recently initiated regional high-end analysis laboratory is a perfect partner for the BTC.’

BioTreatCenter and Source B

Source B is the name of the consortium of Brightlands Chemelot Campus, Brightlands Campus Greenport Venlo, Maastricht University and the Province of Limburg. Its aim is to turn Limburg into one of the leading biobased regions in Europe.

Source B concentrates on an integral chain approach. Many initiatives in the biobased economy are ‘half chains’, which work from semi-manufactured goods/platform to application, or from raw materials to a ‘possible end product’.
This is partly why it is often difficult to set up cost-effective integral chain projects or business cases and realise a visible biobased chain. Source B wants to boost that chance of success by joining the sub links into a closed chain, from customer (the various areas of application) to plant (the raw biomass). Open innovation facilities, combined with a unique eco system of activities at the points where the sectors intersect, form the basis for closing the chain. There are examples of these facilities in the areas of Food, Health & Pharmaceuticals (FoodTechPark Helmond, Brightlabs), Feed (Feed Design Lab) and Chemicals & Materials (Chemelot InSciTe, AMIBM).

The BTC (BioTreatCenter) has to strengthen the connection between biomass and application facilities further. It is precisely at the start of the chain, between the raw biomass and the semi-manufactured product, that there is a big demand for knowledge and innovation. This puts the BTC at the intersection between the agrofood sector and bioprocessing. By focusing on raw biomass as input material the primary sector becomes part of the value chain. Sharing knowledge and chains in the half-open innovation facility must deliver additional opportunities this way for successful business cases.