Creating a Biobased Economy

Fast-tracking bioenergy development in Holland
By Erin Voegele | June 16, 2011

Due in part to its strong chemical industry and logistical advantages, Holland is uniquely suited to become a central biorefining hub in Europe. According to Renee Bergkamp, director general of innovation at the country’s Ministry of Economic Affairs-Agriculture and Innovation, Holland’s chemistry sector created €48 billion ($69 billion) in revenue during 2010. “The chemical industry represents nearly 20 percent of our exports,” she says. When coupled with the logistical advantages of being home to Europe’s first and fourth largest ports and the fact that both public and private entities within the region are diligently working to create a biobased economy, it is clear that the Netherlands offers an attractive opportunity for biorefining companies looking to develop projects in Europe.

According to Bergkamp, the chemical and biobased industries are already an important driver of research and development activities within Netherlands. “This is important because we want to be a knowledge economy,” she says. “It’s a sector that is the core of Holland and we know it is a knowledge power. It’s working on a sustainable future and ...[and putting] that into successful business…Knowledge is nice, but you have to make business of it.”

Bas Pulles, commissioner of the Netherlands Foreign Investment Agency, adds that his country already boasts the 16th largest economy in the world, which is particularly notable considering the relatively small geographic area it occupies. Furthermore, Pulles stresses that a significant portion of Holland’s economic base has been built on trade and investment. This existing economic base should help drive development of the region’s biobased economy.

According to Pulles, there are several reasons Netherlands represents an attractive opportunity for foreign investors, including the regions, strategic location and infrastructure. The country’s ports, airports and IT infrastructure allow companies that establish operations in Holland to service all areas of Europe, he says. In fact, 60 percent of all European distribution centers are located in Holland, he adds. Regarding logistics, Holland is home to the Port of Rotterdam, which is the largest in Europe, and the Port of Amsterdam, Europe’s fourth largest port.

While those logistical attributes may seem to imply that Holland has an economic base that is predominantly manufacturing oriented, Pulles says that is not the case. Rather, he notes that Holland’s economy has a strong service base rather than the strong manufacturing base that is found in many other parts of Europe. This means that the country features many highly skilled and educated workers. The existing chemical industry alone employs approximately 65,000 highly educated workers, Bergkamp says.

 There are also relatively few hurdles that foreign investors must overcome in order to establish operations in Netherlands, Pulles says, adding tax incentives have been specifically developed to benefit foreign investors that set up operations in Holland. Tax incentives have also been developed to make the region attractive to skilled workers from other countries. “We felt there was a shortage of highly-skilled labor in the region,” Pulles says. To help attract more skilled workers to the country, there is a policy that allows these workers to negotiate income tax incentives.

According to Cornelis Mijnders, manager of Holland’s National Program for the Bio-Based Economy, the main drivers of his country’s biobased economy are currently innovation, economic development and environmental policy. One way the government is working to support innovation in the sector is through the development of open-source pilot plants, which are being made available to a wide range of companies and projects within the country. Mijnders estimates that those pilot plants will be in use by June.

In addition to countrywide programs to support development of Holland’s biobased economy, regional initiatives are also underway. According to Eisse Luitjens, manager of Ontwikkeling & Innovatie, a development agency that works in the northern region of Netherlands, his organization supports its local biobased economy through both venture capital investments and manpower. He notes that his organization has developed a three-part roadmap to guide future investments in the biobased economy. One portion of the roadmap focuses specifically on the development of sustainable feedstocks for the chemical industry, and another focuses on the development of biopolymers.

Fuels, Plastics and Chemicals
The northern region of Netherlands already boasts the world’s first commercial-scale biomethanol refinery, which has been developed by BioMCN. The facility currently produces 200,000 metric tons of biomethanol annually using waste glycerin from biodiesel plants as feedstock. BioMCN is also developing a new plant that would produce the same biobased chemical from woody biomass.

BioMCN’s existing production capacity has been retrofitted into an existing fossil-based methanol plant. The company purchased two methanol plants four years ago. The previously idle plants originally produced methanol from natural gas. To date, a portion of one plant has been retrofitted to convert glycerin into biobased methanol. According to BioMCN CEO Rob Voncken, the facility is being retrofitted in two phases. Once phase two is complete in 2013, the plant will be capable of producing 400,000 metric tons of biomethanol annually. The second plant will likely remain idle, he says.

As completion of phase two of the retrofit continues, BioMCN is working with a consortium of companies and sponsor organizations to develop Woodspirit, a proposed 900,000 metric-ton-per-year wood-to-methanol plant. The new facility, which would be located adjacent to the company’s existing operations, would take in 1.5 million tons of wet wood feedstock per year. The feedstock would be dried and converted into a syngas, which would be further catalyzed into biomethanol.

According to Voncken, BioMCN has applied for a subsidy from the European Union that would help support development of the plant. He explains that the EU has committed to subsidize two renewable energy projects in each of its member countries. A total of three projects have been nominated for the subsidy in Holland. Voncken says a final decision is expected to be handed down in May 2012. He also notes that seven companies have already approached BioMCN to express interest in supplying feedstock to the proposed plant. BioMCN aims to have the project operation by 2015.

While BioMCN continues development its newest project, Amsterdam-based Avantium is developing a solution to produce biobased plastics using existing infrastructure. The catalyst technology developer spun off from Shell Oil Co. in 2000 and began transitioning into biobased material development in 2005. According to Frank Roerink, Avantium chief technology officer the company now focuses nearly 50 percent of its efforts on the biobased industry.

Avantium is currently developing a biobased plastic material called polyethylene-furanoate (PEF), which is an analog to traditional fossil-based polyethylene-terephthalate (PET). The 100 percent biobased and recyclable PEF material is designed to be produced in existing infrastructure. “You have to have a production process that can compete with today’s supply chain,” Roerink says, noting that today’s supply chain is built on using chemical catalysis to produce fuels and chemical building blocks. According to Roerink, Avantium has developed a method to economically convert biomass into plastic using existing industrial assets.

“We’ve always worked [under] three simple concepts,” Roerink explains. “Our process has to compete on price, it has to compete on performance and it has to have a better environmental footprint.”

Avantium is continuing to optimize its process to further enhance certain characteristics of its biobased plastic, including color, molecular weight and bottle design. A pilot plant is currently under development and is expected to become operational later this year. The facility will focus on further product optimization as well as the development of product applications, Roerink says, noting that commercial production could begin as soon as 2015.

Another Holland-based company, Purac, is working to develop biobased plastics. The company’s technology converts biomass into lactic acid via a fermentation and purification process. The resulting plastic material, polylactic acid (PLA), can be used in a variety of application processes. According to Purac CEO Rop Zoetemeyer, his company is working improve its process by developing a gypsum-free lactic acid manufacturing process. The new process will not only be simplified, Zoetemeyer notes it will also feature a lower environmental impact.

Algae Research
While most algae projects seem to be associated with warm, sunny locations, such as the American Southwest, several companies in the Netherlands are working to develop regionally adaptable algae production and processing technologies.

A pilot-scale project in Olgeren, Holland, is investigating the use of algae cultivation as a method to remove nutrients for wastewater. The project, under development by Ingrepro Renewables, is housed at Waterstromen bv, a water treatment facility.

The pilot-scale facility currently consists of three 300-square-meter open ponds. According to Marcel Oogink, Ingrepro’s managing director of renewables, the three ponds allow his company to evaluate the impact of production variables, such as pH level and nutrients, on algae yields.

“The algae is a development project, and we are testing several effluents from [the water treatment process]…we can also mix several streams with each other and then send it to the ponds,” Oogink says. The plant produces 5 to 10 tons of algae per year, he says.

 To harvest the algae, Ingrepro Renewables uses a system that has traditionally been used in other wastewater treatment applications. A company representative explains that the system creates tiny air bubbles in the algae solution that rise to the surface, carrying the algae cells with them. The algae is then skimmed off the surface.

According to Oogink, Ingrepro Renewables is also developing an algae encapsulation technology. Information supplied by the company shows that wastewater would flow around the encapsulated algae beads, allowing for the efficient absorption of nutrients. Since the algae is encapsulated in beads, Ingrepro says the process to dewater the algae would be simplified.

FeyeCon, another company located in Holland, has developed several spin-off operations that are active in the algae sector. One of FeyeCon’s areas of specialty is using high-pressure, supercritical carbon dioxide to separate valuable components from biomass materials. For example, the technology can be used to extract valuable oils from algae. According to FeyeCon’s CEO Maaike van Roosmalen, there are several reasons why carbon dioxide is an attractive option for this separation process. It is nontoxic, odor free, colorless, nonflammable and cheap, she says.

Algae Biotech SL, one of FeyeCon’s various spin-offs, is focused on creating products and processes in the algae sector. According to the company, it aims to improve all aspects of downstream algae processing, including harvesting and extraction. CleanAlage SL, another operation established by FeyeCon, is specializing in developing affordable cultivation technologies for algae. The company works closely with Algae Biotech and currently maintains algae cultivation facilities in Spain.

Author: Erin Voegele
Associate Editor, Biorefining Magazine
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