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The availability of numerous basic chemicals at Chemical Park Delfzijl, combined with the region’s agricultural residual flows and its knowledge of green chemistry, make the Northern Netherlands the perfect place for producing biobased building blocks.
Pierre Gielen

This is clear from the recently published report ‘Biobased Opportunities for the Eemsmond Region’ prepared by the chemists André and Eric Heeres. The researchers identified the eight most promising biobased chemicals that can be produced by this chemical cluster with the aid of existing large-scale reagents, such as hydrochloric acid, sodium hydroxide, acetic acid, ammonia and sodium hypochlorite. This involves well-known processes for which the technology is already commercially available (TRL 9), as well as processes that still require further development.

The fact that the basic chemicals already exist here can be an important consideration for a chemical company to establish its production in Delfzijl. ‘For a number of processes it is only more than logical to carry them out here,’ says Errit Bekkering of Chemport Europe that commissioned the research. ‘One of the examples of course is the Dawn Technology of Avantium, which decomposes wood into sugars and lignin. This requires a great deal of hydrochloric acid. This is released during the production of chloroacetic acid by Nouryon in Delfzijl. This is one of the reasons why Avantium chose Delfzijl as the location for its Dawn biorefinery.’ There are more such substances available here that give Delfzijl an edge as the location for establishing new business activities.

The report was positively received by the business community as a new way of looking at the further development of the chemical cluster. ‘But then with the observation that it is rather scientific,’ says Bekkering. ‘However, perhaps this is what’s needed to gain new insights, by linking scientific knowledge with commercial opportunities.’

TRL train

Epichlorohydrin tops the list of promising chemicals. This is a chemical substance that is usually made with propylene produced by the petrochemical industry. A greener route makes use of (biobased) glycerol, a by-product of biodiesel production. This also requires hydrochloric acid and sodium hydroxide. The process is already being applied on a commercial scale (TRL 9) and all three basic chemicals are available in Delfzijl. This therefore provides a logistics advantage.

In addition, a number of propositions have gone beyond the laboratory stage, but have not yet been scaled up. Facilitating the commercialisation of these propositions requires further research and the Northern Netherlands offers attractive facilities at all TRL levels for this purpose. André Heeres, lecturer in Biobased Chemistry at the Hanze University of Applied Sciences Groningen: ‘Together with the University of Groningen (RUG) and the Noorderpoort College we have created the Zernike Advanced Processing (ZAP) facility for this purpose, for example, where we can work on a pilot basis, i.e. on a kilogram scale (TRLs 4 and 5). The next step will be the Chemport Industry Campus, which is being constructed in Delfzijl by Chemport Europe to bridge the transition to full commercial production (TRL 9) via TRLs 6, 7 and 8.’

Many students, PHD students and post-docs also play an important role in this. ‘At the lower TRLs these are primarily chemists and at the higher TRLs they are chemical technicians. At the higher development levels more input will be requested from senior secondary vocational education students, for example. This is precisely the intent. We aim to use the “Green Development Train” for senior secondary vocational education (MBO), higher professional education (HBO) and academic higher education.’

To what extent has the business community expressed interest in these new development routes? ‘We don’t know yet. In our report we have set out the technical and economical benefits,’ says Heeres. The next step is the development of the propositions. ‘Groningen Seaports is working together with NOM and Chemport Europe to further detail the propositions,’ says Henri Kats of Groningen Seaports. ‘We will then present them to international chemical companies that are looking to expand their capacity in Europe. This way we show that Delfzijl is a perfect location for this purpose. We could also make this more attractive by linking granting programmes to this.’

Follow-up research

According to Heeres, there needs to be a follow-up to the ‘Biobased Opportunities’ report. ‘After all it is only one part of the circular, green transition we are targeting in the Northern Netherlands. There is room for much more in this region. For example, we could take a further look at possible modifications of local biomass using reagents that are currently not yet available in Delfzijl. Furthermore, we have not yet assessed enzymatic and fermentation processes designed to convert biomass into chemical building blocks. And what can we do with the green electricity generated by the offshore wind farms that in the near future will be brought onto land here? At the Hanze University of Applied Sciences, as well as at the University of Groningen, we are working hard on electrochemistry, which is the direct modification of biomass using electricity. When you look beyond this, you could also discuss the use of biomass or CO2 as a raw material in combination with the hydrogen that in the near future will be produced in Delfzijl. Furthermore, we are working on plastic-based chemicals, whereby we convert discarded plastics into chemical intermediaries. For example, BioBTX is active in this field and converts plastics into aromatics that in turn can serve as chemical building blocks.’

In other words, more than enough opportunities for the further development of the green chemical sector in the Northern Netherlands. Errit Bekkering: ‘This is a perfectly good way of linking the academic complex in Groningen with the industrial complex in Delfzijl. This would also allow the business community to provide input for establishing the research agenda of the Hanze University of Applied Sciences in Groningen and of the university. This way the report could influence the entire ecosystem surrounding the Chemical Cluster Delfzijl.’

This article was created in cooperation with Chemport Europe and Hanze University of Applied Sciences Groningen.