The origins of these activities are rooted in agriculture and forestry, areas in which Groningen and Drenthe have excelled for centuries. For example, potatoes (starch) and sugar beets are not only valuable food products; together with wood they can serve as important feedstocks for the green chemical industry. Consider Avébé: the largest starch cooperation in the world, with approximately 2,500 members in the Netherlands and Germany.
Starch is traditionally used as a raw material for glue. Many other products are now made from starch, including nutritional supplements, chemicals and bioplastics. Avebe is one of the initiators of the Carbohydrate Competence Center (CCC), where the University of Groningen and Wageningen University & Research conduct research into innovative applications of carbohydrates. Royal Cosun, the parent company of SuikerUnie, is one of the other initiators in the CCC. Sugar from beets, but also from wood, can serve as an important raw material for chemicals and bioplastics. The worlds of chemistry and agriculture are moving closer towards each other all the time.
North Netherlands also leads the field when it comes to energy generation and the useful utilisation of industrial residual heat. In the past, the natural gas reserve in Slochteren turned Groningen into the cash cow of the government and the petrochemical industry. More renewable sources are now being used and the province is regaining its pride through a new, more sustainable position within the Dutch energy production cycle, thanks to wind and solar energy and the combustion and fermentation of biomass.
The combination of the chemical parks in Emmen and Delfzijl has resulted in one of the largest chemical complexes in the Netherlands. These chemical parks neatly combine process and energy flows, research and implementation in tangible pilot and demonstration projects, job opportunities and education. This is expressed, for example, in the Industrial Agenda Eems Delta, which was presented in April 2018.
One of the success factors of the North, is the existing chains that new businesses in the chemical industry can join within Chemport Europe. The chemical industry is becoming greener, based on the existing situation. This is resulting in integrated chains and ultimately a circular economy, as various businesses are active in the same sector and can exchange raw materials and semi-finished products: intermediate chemicals around Delfzijl, polymers and fibres around Emmen.
In Delfzijl, they are working hard to reduce stack emissions by electrification and connection to offshore wind, the use of green raw materials, green hydrogen and – in the short term – there is a focus on materials, applications and recycling mainly through energy efficiency In Drenthe. The emphasis here is on the so-called embedded emissions (fossil carbon in the products created by the industry). Companies in Emmen have a strong focus on finding new – sometimes biobased – production methods and on retaining CO2 by recycling and upcycling.
A tangible example of the cooperation within the northern ecosystem is the chain that is being constructed around the chemical technology company Avantium. This pioneer in the field of sustainable chemistry opened a pilot bio-refinery on the site of Nouryon (formerly AkzoNobel Specialty Chemicals) at Chemistry Park Delfzijl in mid-2018. The “Dawn Technology” for the extraction of glucose, mixed sugars and lignin from residue is being developed further there. This forms a stepping stone towards a large-scale demonstration factory and ultimately to a production plant.
As a result, the company closely matches various existing production chains at the Chemistry Park Delfzijl and in the Eems Delta. Gert-Jan Gruter, CTO of Avantium, has already summarised the benefits of this business location in the Chemie Magazine of the Royal Dutch Association for the Chemical Industry (VNCI). “The new factory needs to be sustainable. The existing AkzoNobel site already uses a large proportion of sustainable energy and wants to increase this share further in the future. AkzoNobel also has hydrochloric acid available for the Avantium process. There are also all sorts of services available, from water purification and security to the staff restaurant.”
Staatsbosbeheer (Forestry Commission) is taking part in the pilot project as a supplier of feedstocks: waste flows from forestry management in the region. One of the products – lignin – has a high caloric value; this is useful for electricity production in the ultra-modern solid fuel plant run by project partner RWE in the Eems Harbour. The 2nd generation sugar that is produced can be used to make all sorts of chemicals.
Avantium has also developed a process to use sugars as raw materials. The company uses the Mekong technology to convert sugars to mono-ethylene glycol (MEG), a raw material in the production of – among other things – polyester. Polymerisation of MEG takes place in the Chemical Cluster Emmen. This building block can then also be used by Cumapol, a company that produces high-grade polyesters. The other building block of polyester – terephthalic acid (PTA) – can be produced from aromatics supplied by BioBTX, an innovative company on the Zernike Campus in Groningen, which was founded as a result of the collaboration between the University of Groningen, the Hanze University of Applied Sciences and the company KNN. This brings the production of a completely green PET bottle within reach.
Following collection by the recycling companies Attero, Omrin and Morssinkhof, PET bottles return for processing to a raw material for polymers and semi-finished products. The Sustainable Polymer Innovation Cluster Emmen (SPIC) is one of the leaders in the field of new and alternative polymers. SPIC was founded by a number of businesses operating from the Emmtec Industry & Business Park, in collaboration with the government and Stenden University of Applied Science. A striking feature of this collaboration is that the participating companies share their lab and production facilities and invest together in new hardware and market research.
And this brings everything together in the northern ecosystem of Chemport Europe, in which the interconnectedness of research, government and entrepreneurs creates a driving force for the ever faster development of the green chemical industry. And the infrastructure that is already present in the form of (sea) harbours, airports, railway lines and motorways means that they can connect to markets all over the world. This provides unique opportunities for North Netherlands to close the green cycles and create a strong future perspective.
This article was created in cooperation with Chemport Europe