‘Ghent is traditionally an area where large agro bulk streams enter the country’, according to Sofie Dobbelaere, managing director of Flanders Biobased Valley (FBBV). ‘This contrasts with the port of Antwerp which concentrates more on petrochemicals and container transport and storage. Ghent – especially the University – has also built up significant expertise in the field of biotechnology. So it is no coincidence that Ghent Bio-Energy Valley was established in 2006. This was in large part due to Wim Soetaert (Ghent University). His inspiration and the cooperation between private and public partners enabled Ghent to attract a large share of the development and production of biofuels here over the years.’
Currently in Ghent roughly 350 KTon biodiesel, 170 KTon bio-ethanol and 250 MW electricity are produced on the basis of biomass every year. A biorefinery cluster has arisen at the Rodenhuizedok with two producers of biofuels, Cargill (supplier and pre-processor of rapeseed) and two storage companies. Dobbelaere: ‘We have acquired a lot of experience in setting up this kind of biorefinery cluster. It was easier for us as a neutral party to bring the parties together.’ In the meantime, the plants are running at full speed and have been able to push up production several times. Full attention is now being paid to second or third generation streams, according to Dobbelaere. ‘One interesting route is gas fermentation. This process converts carbon monoxide and hydrogen into ethanol by means of fermentation. ArcelorMittal is currently building a large-scale plant to convert one tenth of the gas emissions from its factory in Ghent into ethanol.’
Growth of biobased chemicals
Since its establishment in 2005, FBBV has expanded into a major cluster organisation which supports and promotes the development of the biobased economy in Flanders. Just as the cluster was the birthplace of the biofuel industry in Flanders, it now also wants to be the driving force behind the further development of the biobased economy in Flanders. In contrast to energy/fuels, particularly strongly regulated markets, there are still significant growth opportunities for biobased chemicals and materials, in the eyes of FBBV. According to Soetaert, half of all chemicals will be produced from biomass by 2050. The oxygen molecules in particular set biomass apart from fossil raw materials. Because these molecules are already present naturally in the biomass, these functional groups do not have to be added, which simplifies the production process and makes it less expensive.
Connection with chemistry
The question is: which role do the parties under the FBBV umbrella see set out in the route from biomass to chemistry? ‘We have defined a number of strategic domains for ourselves,’ explains Dobbelaere. One of them involves the upstream section. ‘This is the part of the route where biomass, preferably residual streams, is converted into sugars through pretreatment. The Bio Base Europe Pilot Plant is one of the places where a great deal of expertise has been acquired over the years in the technological and economic evaluation of the different routes. These sugars can then be converted into chemicals through fermentation or chemical conversion. In that context we work together closely with organisations such as Catalisti, which has the objective of boosting innovation in the Flemish chemical and plastics sector. Another strategic domain is the conversion of waste gas into chemicals via syngas fermentation, which is a biobased process.’
Face of Flanders
FBBV will also present itself more as the turning and linking point for Flemish businesses and public organisations which are active in the biobased economy; this also explains the name change. ‘We were associated too much with Ghent,’ according to Dobbelaere. ‘This broadening was necessary so we would no longer be regarded as a purely regional initiative, but as a Flemish cluster which wants to support the biobased economy in the whole of Flanders. We want to create a support base and contact point in Flanders for the development of the biobased economy. On the one hand we want this platform to supply businesses with the essential knowledge and contacts, and on the other hand we also want to make the government aware that the biobased economy offers huge potential for Flanders and accordingly deserves the necessary support. We believe there is a need for this kind of cluster, so that it is clear for businesses or other organisations where they can turn to for questions about everything that has to do with biobased. That is not so obvious right now. With bio-energy we saw that a joint approach works. We are now continuing along that line.’