Refining is a more than 150-year-old technology in which crude oil is broken down into different fractions, from bitumen to LPG. This is also the essence of biorefining: it involves the cascading of the raw material into multiple products with different applications, so that nothing is lost. This makes the process efficient and helps to close the business case.
It does presuppose, however, that there are customers for all the fractions resulting from biorefinery and therefore valuable applications. Joop Groen, member of CBBD’s V-Team: “It means that it is not only about new conversion technology. The products are changing and new value chains are also needed for that.”
Biobased products can be identical to their fossil counterparts and be used as so-called ‘drop-in’ in an existing chemical process. The big advantage then is that markets and applications are known and many existing installations can be used, but it comes down to competing only on price. “Of course, we first aim to make better products, with unique properties and therefore a higher value,” says Groen. “It does mean that you need new chains, parties and applications, with all the risks and uncertainties that entails. The advantage then is that you can also offer a truly new product with improved properties, such as bio-aromatics from Relement for coatings and lignin from woody biomass for asphalt to replace fossil bitumen, as we are doing in CBBD’s CHAPLIN programme.”
CHAPLIN also clearly demonstrates the role CBBD can play in promoting biorefinery: it brings parties together to create networks, form consortia and accelerate projects. “It will not work without cooperation,” confirms Marilia Foukaraki, Cosun Beet Company‘s R&D Biobased project manager and speaker at the 6 July meeting. “That’s why we at Cosun Beet Company also seek cooperation with other businesses in the chain. We have been working with the green chemical company Avantium for years and intend to start a joint venture this year. The ultimate aim is to jointly invest in a commercial glycols production plant that must be operational in 2025.”
Avantium produces glycols from sugars, for which there is a huge global market: monoethylene glycol (MEG) is used in polyester packaging and in the textile industry. monopropylene glycol (MPG) is used in de-icing fluids for aircraft and in resins for solar panels and wind turbines.
“Cosun Beet Company supplies the biobased raw materials: beet sugars. We do so through a highly optimised and fully circular supply chain. We extract a very large and sustainable yield of sugar from the beet. It is an ideal, easily processed feedstock for the production of chemicals. We convert it to ethanol, specialty chemicals and bioplastics. And we make animal feed and green gas from our residual flows. You could say that Cosun Beet Company is the oldest biorefinery in the Netherlands, with more than 100 years’ experience and an unrelenting hunger for innovation.
Making chemistry more sustainable
A relative newcomer among biorefineries is Biondoil. It converts wood residues into industrial C5 and C6 sugars, liquid biogenic CO2 with a purity of 98%, furfural, acetic acid and a large amount of lignin. Ivar Knopper, CEO of Biondoil and also a speaker on 6 July: “We keep the biobased raw materials within the system by valorising them instead of burning them. We will have to make such a move, because the end customers of the chemical sector are demanding a huge increase in sustainability. As a result, we are now talking to large tyre manufacturers, foam manufacturers and parties in the packaging market. So there already is a market demand and not much is needed to make biorefinery commercially viable. The only thing we lack is a benchmark.”
That, of course, is the curse of all new technology. Nevertheless, a first factory will soon be built, probably in Antwerp. “There we have been allocated a plot in the NextGen District, so we can link up with the innovative chemical industry. I think there is a good chance that a plant in Amsterdam will follow fairly soon.”
Knopper notes that building factories in the Netherlands is certainly not a given, despite the call for more domestic production. “We are not good at realising sustainable manufacturing in the Netherlands. This is mainly due to a lack of courage and leadership from the Dutch government. We get stuck in endless discussions about biomass that do not help. The discussions should be more about possibilities, instead of obstacles. This is done much better in Belgium.
So what about the future of biorefinery? It could be that many small-scale biorefineries will eventually emerge in underdeveloped biomass-rich areas. They will stimulate the economy and offer high quality employment and facilities to the local population. The European Commission is also working on this. But there is still a long way to go. “I don’t know if I will live to see that,” says Knopper.
Registration for the network meeting on biorefinery is still possible, via the website of CBBD. The language of the meeting will be Dutch. Participation is free of charge. See the agenda for more information.
Image above: Red ivory/Shutterstock