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True innovation in the chemical and bioprocessing technology sector is being created in a fertile environment, a location where students, instructors, researchers and entrepreneurs work together on bio-raw materials, and sustainable processes and products.
Pierre Gielen

The Zernike Advanced Processing (ZAP) facility in Groningen has developed an excellent reputation in this area over a period of just a few years. It is a location where companies can develop their proof of concept, test new systems and together with knowledge institutes work on a greener future. ZAP is jointly financed by the Spatial Economic Programme of the Northern Netherlands Alliance (SNN).

At the ZAP facility, students conduct research into issues identified by the business community or by professors and instructors. This way they acquire knowledge and skills, which they will also need in their field of work. Thanks to its role as a link between business, research and education, ZAP is furthermore able to identify new developments in this field of work and bring them to the attention of the education sector.

This led to, for example, the construction of the ZAP LED Grow Plants facility: a conditioned shipping container in which plants are grown using advanced LED lighting. Or the development of a multipurpose biomass reaction and separating unit that can be used for divergent organic chemical processes, enzymatic conversions, pre-treatment reactions, extraction, distillation and crystallisation.

Contributing Knowledge

Mark Meerdink, Chemical Technology instructor at the Hanze University of Applied Sciences is proud of the development of this unit. ‘Bringing all of these functions together in a single unit involves all kinds of technical challenges. We use students to deal with these issues, but we also make use of the expertise of companies in the Northern Netherlands. One of our partners is Jongia Mixing Technology in Leeuwarden, an innovator and supplier of smart agitators for a wide range of applications in the Food, Biobased and Chemical industries. Jongia wants to use the unit for the purpose of conducting upscaling tests at ZAP. It is interesting for us to be in contact with a company like this, which also brings in technical knowledge.’

According to Meerdink, this is ZAP’s strength: the interaction between the education sector and the business community. Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the region are given the opportunity of scaling up all kinds of laboratory research, without the need for acquiring the equipment themselves: one time this may be a complex reaction and separation unit, another time a membrane filtration unit or a simple cutting mill for larger quantities of biomass. At the same the cooperation gives students an opportunity to become familiar with actual practice and interesting developments that are still in their infancy. ‘Take the BERNN Circular Biopolymer PHA and Cellulose Value Chains project, for example. Various knowledge institutions as well as business partners are involved in this project. Last year, students in our international Renewable Energy, Materials & Processing minor conducted pilot runs with PHA in the twenty-litre fermenter located in the ZAP facility, and ultimately enriched it. They are going to do this again this year. Optimisations have been discovered on a laboratory scale that increase bacteria yields. This provides opportunities for extracting more material, conducting more experiments and measurements, and determining the polymer’s characteristics.’

More Plants

Another interesting development is the ‘ZAP LED Grow Plants’ facility opened in September. Désirée den Os, Instructor-Researcher Biology and Medical Laboratory Research at the Hanze University of Applied Sciences: ‘A few years ago I was hired to incorporate more plant-related education into our curriculum. This also requires a plant growing facility in which we can control and vary light conditions. A perfect opportunity to enable students and companies to familiarise themselves with this new development: LED lighting in the crop growing sector. With this facility we are no longer dependent on daylight and we can study the reaction of plants under various lighting conditions. In our LED Grow Plants facility we have 21 cabinets for this purpose, in which we can adjust the light’s colour, intensity and day/night rhythm independently of each other.’

It is well known that light influences the plant components, growth and leaf surface area, as well as the concentration of its substances, for example. ‘Last year we conducted research into anthocyanins in lettuce plants, natural dyes and antioxidants that, for example, also give roses or tulips their colour. Under white light there is a high accumulation of anthocyanins, but not under red light. In that case the leaves stay green.’

The ZAP LED Grow Plants facility in part came about as a result of questions received from the education sector. First and second-year students will attend practical sessions here. In their third year, students enrolled in the Biotechnology minor will run their own projects based on questions received from the business community and there is a possibility of completing an internship or graduation project. ‘We are now ready to approach companies. From my contacts with entrepreneurs, I know that there is market interest. Right now we have only one unit, but there is room for expansion.’

Labour Market

The cooperation between the education sector and the business community is bearing fruit for the students. Not only are they given the opportunity of being actively involved in a wide range of challenging practical projects, but it also results in internships and graduation projects, as well as opportunities on the labour market. Quite a few Hanze University of Applied Sciences students are now active in companies in the Northern Netherlands and beyond. A specific example? Mark Meerdink: ‘Two year ago our students conducted a number of small-scale tests in the ZAP project laboratory under contract to Avantium in Delfzijl. This resulted in a number of striking findings, which in turn resulted in a graduation project. Ultimately, Avantium hired a number of our student alumni.’

This article was created in cooperation with Hanze University of Applied Sciences.

Image above: Martin Bergsma/Shutterstock