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Chemelot InSciTe was launched at the start of 2015. The public-private joint venture has been active for two years now. High time to haul in the nets and inspect the catch. The initial results are positive. Currently significant work is ongoing on the validation of the economic feasibility.

Chemelot InSciTe (Chemelot Instituut for Science & Technology) was set up by the Technical University of Eindhoven, Maastricht University, Academic Hospital Maastricht and DSM with support from the Province of Limburg. Contrary to the many virtual joint ventures, it has an actual physical infrastructure with laboratories, pilot facilities, offices and suchlike. They are located at the Brightlands Chemelot Campus. It also has a link with education, so that students can be trained to become ‘biobased’ or ‘circular’ professionals. ‘InSciTe Biobased is about more sustainable materials and processes which link in seamlessly with the circular economy’, according to Bart van As, business developer at InSciTe. ‘To that aim we need biobased materials and more effective and/or milder processes. At InSciTe we are focusing on two tracks: biomedical materials and biobased building blocks.’

Second-generation biomass

For the latter track, InSciTe is aiming at the biobased building blocks which serve as a platform for derivatives for chemistry and materials. These building blocks are based on second-generation biomass, thereby avoiding the food-versus-fuel or food-versus-materials discussion. The processes to expose this biomass do require more energy and the yields are not always high enough for a solid business case. What is more, combinations of technologies are often required which are not present under the same roof. That is why InSciTe addresses the need for groups of companies to investigate these technologies and scale them up in a pilot project setting. It is then up to the private parties to bring processes and/or products to the market.

Lignin crude oil

Michael Boot (Eindhoven University of Technology) is working very hard on the latter. AT InSciTe, he is the project leader of Lignin RICHES. This project is based on a thermocatalytic process developed in the group of Professor Emiel Hensen (Eindhoven University of Technology), to convert lignin into so-called lignin crude oil (LCO). ‘It involves lignin which arises as a by-product from the production of second-generation bio ethanol. This raw material is currently used mainly as a source of energy for the biorefinery process. Once converted into LCO, the value of the lignin increases by a factor of four. This is because lignin can be replaced quite simply by relatively cheap natural gas. On the other hand, LCO offers an alternative to the much more expensive high-sulphur fuel oil which the shipping sector currently uses for bunkering. To keep the cost price of LCO under control, refining will not go any further than is done for tar sand oil. This makes the oil just fluid enough to flow through a pipe and burn in a ship’s engine. We will have to optimise our process for this purpose: that means lower process temperatures and a lower concentration of catalysts.’

Pilot production mid-2018

Van As believes that biobased fuel oil has a good chance of succeeding. After all, shipping is a particularly polluting sector due to the use of high-sulphur (3 to 5 percent) fuel oil. More sustainable alternatives such as electrification are not present. ‘In the short to medium term, low-sulphur, biobased fuels like LCO are the only option to make shipping more sustainable.’
Before Michael’s LCO can reach the market, various things will still have to happen. The pilot production is scheduled to take place from mid-2018 in the Multipurpose Pilot Plant (MPP) at Brightlands Chemelot Campus, where Boot will test on a 100 kg scale. ‘By the end of next year I want to be able to produce one barrel of LCO a day: that’s around 160 litres. These volumes are essential to attract the interest of industrial partners.’