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To show the good and relevant results that European subsidies can yield, nine members of the European parliament presented a selection of high-profile projects in Brussel. Among these was the BIO-HArT bio-aromatics project, selected by Dutch EU representative Lambert van Nistelrooij. TNO's senior business developer Monique Wekking took the opportunity to draw attention to the challenges of biobased chemical innovation.
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On the initiative of Lambert van Nistelrooij (EPP/CDA), the nine MEPs put a great number of European projects in the spotlight with their ‘Let the Stars Shine’ project. Each selected a number of ‘showcase projects’ from their own country. In the third week of June, this led to a special exhibition in the European parliament in Brussels, showing how Europe matters in everyday life.

Van Nistelrooij: “Many people have seen these EU roadside signs which say ‘this bridge is co-financed by the European Union’ or stuff like that. But in many research projects, including those in bio-based materials, the relevance of EU support is not on display. We want to change that, so we selected people that have ample experience with Europe and have realized a project with EU support. These are the stars we give the opportunity to shine!”

Let the bio-aromatics shine!

As advocate of the biobased economy, Van Nistelrooij included BIO-HArT in his selection. In BIO-HArT, the shared research center Biorizon works together with partners on industrial processes for the production of aromatics (chemical raw materials) from biomass. Originating from the Green Chemistry Campus in Bergen op Zoom, it is an international multi-million project with ten universities, research institutions and companies, supported by the European Interreg V Flanders-Netherlands program. Van Nistelrooij: “I appreciate the circular bio-economy as the engine of a smarter, more sustainable and more competitive Europe. Regional projects such as the Green Chemistry Campus deserve better visibility.”

The greening of chemistry

Monique Wekking is pleased with the selection, the more so because BIO-HArT is the only project aimed at making the chemical industry more sustainable. About forty percent of the industrially produced chemicals are based on aromatics – a certain type of molecules with a special chemical structure. By producing these from biomass, BIO-HArT can make an enormously important contribution to the greening of chemistry. Wekking: “We want to show how important it is to accelerate the transition in the chemical industry. For me the selection by ‘Let the Stars Shine’ is the recognition that this work matters to the EU. Even in a global perspective, Biorizon is special: you will not find such a shared research center anywhere else, where a consortium collaborates to develop breakthrough technology in bio-aromatics.”

She took the opportunity in Brussels to emphasize that European policy is decisive for the success of projects such as BIO-HArT. “Anyone who uses biomass for energy applications can claim all sorts of subsidies. This is far less the case if you use biomass for the production of chemical building blocks, like Biorizon does. This is annoying, and it impedes our development possibilities. I would like to see a level playing field, that was the point I made in Brussels. “

In addition, the pricing of CO2 emission plays an important role in the business case of a bio-aromatics plant. “If we want to make the switch in chemistry from fossil sources to natural, CO2-neutral ones, we will have to offer competitive alternatives.” CO2 pricing can give bio-aromatics an advantage over aromatics from petroleum. The Dutch ‘Topsector Chemie’ is a strong proponent of this, but we can’t do that in the Netherlands alone. That has to be arranged at a European level. “

Van Nistelrooij is aware of this: “There are still many barriers to the bio-based economy: many innovations today risk being left unused, because companies can’t make a viable business case. So there lies a role for the government.”

Better properties

Wekking understands that it may be difficult for the average MEP to understand the relevance of Biorizon. Bio-aromatics are chemical intermediates where the ‘green’ aspect can hardly be noticed. “Fortunately, with BIO-HArT we are now ready to supply trial samples to future industrial customers. These have already shown that coatings, lubricants and polyurethane plastics can be made using bio-aromatics. Their bio-based products are more sustainable, have a significantly reduced CO2 footprint and possess better properties than comparable products made on the basis of petroleum. It was good to show that in Brussels!”

This article was produced in collaboration with Biobased Delta.