In a strategic sense, building the pilot plant was a smart move. Marijn Rijkers and Eric Appelman couldn’t agree more. The transition to sustainable green chemistry requires innovation, innovation, and more innovation – and such a facility with extensive state-of-the-art equipment, installations, and experienced operators is desperately needed. This pilot plant, which is the only one of its kind in the Netherlands, has been continually expanded and upgraded since it was officially opened in 2016. Eric sees the pilot plant as an essential stepping stone. Marijn praises the accessible opportunity to explore how an idea works in a production environment: 'Here you can try things out, identify all the risks, and solve any teething problems. So that, if all goes well, you can then build the right factory for the actual processes in one go.' The investment is all the more necessary because similar infrastructure has disappeared in recent decades. Now that the industry has to reinvent itself all over again, this facility is sorely needed, and has fortunately arrived at the right time.'
The European Green Deal is set to have an enormous impact – not only on the further development and acceptance of sustainable energy, but also on ‘old school’ chemistry and the use of materials. If all those innovations really take off, a huge amount of capacity will be required for upscaling. Marijn: 'It’s just as well that there is already a fully equipped, state-of-the-art multi-purpose pilot plant in Geleen. I anticipate that the growth of green chemistry will generate significant employment opportunities. Each billion-euro investment is guaranteed to create thousands of high-level jobs. So this development is not only beneficial for the environment.' Eric adds: 'If you really want to develop new chemistry and "play" with the process in a well-equipped and safe environment, the multi-purpose pilot plant on the Brightlands Chemelot Campus is the only place to do it.'
The combination of environment and economy is often considered to be a difficult one – and sometimes even contradictory and impossible. It is bizarre that you can now extract coal, oil, and gas from the ground relatively cheaply and use those resources to make products without being held accountable for their negative impact on the climate. That gives those products an unfair advantage compared to more sustainable alternatives made from renewable raw materials that are often still in the development phase and are, therefore, often more expensive to produce – at least for the time being. This is a source of frustration for both Marijn and Eric: Marijn: 'If we are serious about making a green breakthrough, we need to seriously consider an extra levy or tax on the extraction of fossil raw materials and CO2. This requires politicians to take action.' Eric: 'In the EU, I think that can still be achieved. But if our products become too expensive to export, there’s a good chance that production will shift to other parts of the world. Then our good intentions will result in job losses here, and planet earth will not benefit at all. Chemical products play an important role in making the world more sustainable. Longevity is at the heart of sustainability; just think of plastic packaging that keeps your food fresh for longer, or the use of a lightweight plastic instead of heavy iron. We have to use plastics for as long as possible, produce them as cleanly as possible, and at the end be able to recycle or reuse them.'
Marijn firmly believes that innovation in chemistry is entirely possible: 'But then you have to focus on innovation for the longer term: a clear strategy, clear choices, and a consistent approach. We have the knowledge, we have the energy from the sun; we really don’t need mineral oil. But we have to dare to make that switch, and that means: innovation, innovation, innovation. To those who say that we are already making good progress with greening, I have one message: You ain’t seen nothing yet. We have only just started, there is a lot more to come, and our pilot plant is and will continue to play a key role in that.’
Eric Appelman holds an MSc degree in Chemical Engineering from Twente University. In 1989 he started as process development manager at Unilever in the field of edible oils and then moved to Unilever’s chemicals company Unichema in a number of technical-commercial roles. In 2004 he became technical director of the Marine & Protective Coatings business of Sigma Kalon, leading staff in the Netherlands, China, Korea and France. In 2008 he became Executive Vice-President of Swedish chemical enterprise Perstorp, in charge of innovation, market development and corporate strategy and responsible for new product launches. Returning to Holland in 2016, Eric took up non-executive directorships at startups in Sweden and the US, in the fields of aerogels, flame retardants and biobased chemicals. In 2017 he became a director of the Brightlands Chemelot Innovation Campus in the Netherlands where he is CTO and in charge of acquisition of new companies.
Marijn Rijkers, a seasoned process engineer and physical chemist, built his biobased and circular economy career in DSM. His final responsibility was running DSM's corporate program on circular raw materials for sustainable chemicals and engineering materials. From this position, Marijn joined InSciTe’s program council and chaired the BBI-JU project BIOFOREVER. Since 2017, Marijn is continuing his biobased and circular chemistry activities in InnoSyn and Chemelot-InSciTe. In these assignments, he facilitated among others the initiation of the BrigH2 project and the Biomass To C6-monomers project. All aiming for ‘greening’ chemical sites like Chemelot well before 2050.