While studying for her doctorate between 2005 and 2009, Steinbusch came into contact with a fermentation process. Based on anaerobic bacteria, it converts organic waste into high-grade chemical raw materials. The technology eventually resulted in Steinbusch’s first start-up, Waste2Chemical.
Kirsten, you really wanted to join a company as large as Shell, and it ended up being a start-up.
‘Yes, but in hindsight this was the better choice. I actually thought there was a role for me in R&D at a large company that wanted to make the transition from the traditional (petro)chemical industry to different, more environmentally friendly process technologies. But there was a good chance that I would have ended up on the sideline.
At the time, in 2009, I was given the opportunity to purchase a patented technology that I had discovered myself, for a good price. I took on a business partner, Niels van Stralen, and together we started Waste2Chemical. It was and still is a promising process with competitive yields. The financial risks for us were not that large either: we were still in an early phase of the R&D procedure and obtained capital injections from various funds. The technology has since been scaled up to a pilot plant, and a demo factory is planned.’
You no longer work at Waste2Chemical, now operating as Chaincraft.
‘That’s right, Niels and I each went our own way in 2014, on good terms. At the time I simply wanted to apply for jobs but very soon I had a call from Luuk van der Wielen (Delft University of Technology, BE-Basic) who was also involved in Waste2Chemical. He asked me to set up a company focusing on a promising separation technology for the fermentation of oils. It was a process that worked on laboratory scale. So it had to be scaled up further and alignment with the market had to be found. For the latter activity especially I had already obtained the necessary experience at Waste2Chemical.’
What does the technology involve?
‘It is better if I start with the background. When you produce oils using micro-organisms you often get an emulsion, like a kind of mayonnaise. You have to extract the oils from this with a high level of purity. The industry usually requires several steps to achieve that: several centrifuge rounds, a temperature swing, the addition of chemicals and a final filtration step. This all entails considerable additional costs, so that some business cases are sent back to the drawing board, certainly those for relatively low-grade end products such as biofuels. Well, the research group of Dr Maria Cuellar at the Delft University of Technology developed a patented process for separating the oil in the reactor already, making savings of 20 to 40 percent possible. This step can also be performed outside the reactor, so that producers do not immediately have to acquire a new reactor. The separation step is preferably performed as fast as possible because the emulsion is less stable then. The more stable the emulsion becomes, the more energy it will cost to centrifuge the oils out of it.’
What phase is the technology development currently in?
‘The process works on laboratory scale (editor’s note: one hundred litres) and we have already done simulations for one hundred and one thousand litres. This year we are going to scale up to a prototype with volumes of one hundred litres and in 2017 we will have an eight-thousand litre tank at the BioProcessFacility in Delft. Efficiency-wise we are at 86 percent, which puts us close to the 90/91 percent that the industry works with. We have already had discussions with various national and international parties in the fermentation business so that the technology can be geared to what the industry wants as much as possible. As I said earlier, our technology is highly suited to the more low-grade end products such as biofuels or aromatic and flavouring substances for the food industry. The first sector mainly needs cheaper process technology to be able to get close to fossil fuels or bio ethanol at all. The sector has become smarter thanks to the Amyris debacle in which the production costs of biofuels ended up being higher by a factor of 8 and the market value evaporated. The food sector is chiefly interested in alternative raw material streams so that companies can reduce their dependence on one particular stream. A good example is the Isobionics company in the Netherlands which produces valencene and nootkatone via fermentation; these substances can be used as flavours in soft drinks. This method delivers an end product that is purer than the standard method (extraction) which also happens to be more detrimental to the environment. The level of purity of oil-bearing components is also an issue for halal products.’
What does the DAB business model look like? Are you going to design and build the reactors yourselves, or will you extract value from the acquired expertise in one-on-one procedures with third parties?
‘DAB is a technology company, not a reactor builder. There are not that many reactor builders anyway. Often companies develop and build them in-house or contract the work out to welding businesses. Every micro-organism, or rather every strain, has its own processing conditions which require a tailored approach. We have the knowledge in the field of fermentation and the patented separation method to develop the optimum solution with each individual customer.’
You said that you are already holding discussions with national and international parties. How definite is the demand of these companies for your technology?
‘The interest is there, even though, as I said, the technology has not been scaled up yet for commercial operation. We expect this to happen in 2018/2019. The market does aim in the first instance more at developing micro-organisms; that is what these companies earn their money with. Optimising processing conditions is therefore not top-of-mind, certainly not for the more high-grade end products. So it is up to us to get this into people’s heads, especially with producers which concentrate on relatively low-grade end products. In the long term, however, our technology will be able to prove its value for high-grade products as well, definitely once they develop into more mature markets.’