Pretreatment is an essential step to prepare the often recalcitrant biomass for the downstream processing stage. Certain components have to be exposed in a way that ensures satisfactory quality and volume for making a business case. Currently this technology is still seldom used in the pretreatment phase. That is why the BTC has been set up with companies which have varied processes. What is more, the BTC prefers to set up projects which involve the entire value chain: from end customer to the supplier of the raw material. The demand of the customer is leading: let’s say from customer to plant.
Together under one roof
The link with the agricultural and horticultural sector is obvious. This sector is well represented in the southeastern region of the Netherlands (East Brabant, North Limburg), with businesses which want to look beyond the prevailing revenue models. ‘The demand and need for a centre where applied research is carried out into the pretreatment of various forms of biomass, especially from horticulture, is huge,’ according to Patrick Lemmens, Biobased Economy Business Developer at Brightlands Campus Greenport Venlo and involved in Source B. ‘All that was missing was a physical location where these parties could find each other. With the BTC we can bring these parties together under the one roof and provide them with facilities (equipment, manpower) so that they can make swift progress in this phase. One thing is clear in any case: the core of the BTC is formed by businesses which are working on concrete business cases. The intention is to deliver activity, not beautiful reports.’
Well, that activity is certainly there now. Five companies have already registered with the BTC: NewFoss, Hofmans (biomass logistics and processing), Grassa!, Eco-Makelaar and Ingenia. Of course the BTC is open to other companies. Lemmens labels the BTC a ‘half-open innovation location’: innovating together with a low wall in between. One of the participants is a well-known player in the Dutch bio economy: NewFoss Biobased products & techniques from Uden. The company has built up a reputation with its process for refining grass and breaking it down into fibres and other components such as protein.
One of the activities of NewFoss at the BTC will be researching the refining of stevia. ‘This plant, which supplies sweetening, is currently cultivated mainly in China and South America,’ according to Geert van Boekel. ‘The problem is that it is not always cultivated in a sustainable way. Furthermore, the liquorice-like taste of stevia often stops it from being used in applications in food such as soft drinks. On the basis of our understanding of grass refining, we have found a way to refine stevia so that the after-taste does not occur. We can perform this trick on a laboratory scale. We want to scale this up at the BTC to a 1,000 kg scale. Together with Wageningen UR and Maastricht University we are also examining other active components in the plant, including for the pharmaceutical industry. If the scaling up is successful, we would prefer to cooperate with local suppliers. The stevia plant can flourish in this climate. And it does not necessarily have to grow in glasshouses.’
Another ‘old friend’, the engineering and consultancy firm Ingenia, will work at the BTC on scaling up its process to make bio bitumen for asphalt from different types of biomass. The company has already made a product on laboratory scale by heating biomass at 300 degrees at a pressure of 200 bar. According to Ingenia director Ronald Verberne, the product has the same quality as fossil-based bitumen. It is just the price which will present a challenge. Several road builders have in any case expressed their interest, says Verberne. ‘We just still need a few years to scale up and carry out tests with our bio bitumen. The great thing about the BTC is that we are going to investigate how we can pre-dry the biomass, together with another BTC partner, engineering factory Hofmans. The moisture content of the input determines the final quality to a large extent.’
Production line for hempcrete blocks
Richard de la Roy, owner/founder of Eco-Makelaar, develops and supplies sustainable/biobased materials to the building industry. ‘At the BTC I am going to investigate a number of interesting processes. For instance, I am working on a system that will enable hempcrete blocks to be used as load-bearing elements. Apart from investigating the right composition of the blocks, we have to design a production line so we can make these blocks at current market prices. That is what we are going to do at the BTC. Another project is putting a biobased bitumen coating on hemp wood, so that it can be used as a sustainable alternative filler in roof pitches.
Grassa! focuses on possible routes for refining grass and other crops via a small-scale biorefinery – in a mobile plant – in order to become a supplier of biorefinery products. ‘We consider the BTC as our R&D facility in the south,’ says director Martijn Wagener. ‘Thanks to that, we can transfer some of our equipment in nearby Panningen to Venlo.’ At the BTC, Grassa will work together with the Feed Design Lab in Wanssum, North Limburg. ‘We are going to see how we can use the grass protein, the fibres and the juice as feed for poultry, pigs and cattle.’ This requires different fractions: for instance, grass protein can be used in a wet form as pig feed, but not as feed for the other animals. Another project Grassa! will work on at the BTC is refining water plants. Some varieties have grown enormously over the past few years and create extra work for the water authorities. ‘Our process also works with these plants. The art is in beating the existing value creation route, which is composting. We also have to find a use for the biorefinery products which parties want to pay for. Currently these rampant water plants are nothing but a cost item.’