Bio residues as emerging feedstock for chemicals and materials

Ben Rooijackers from Venlo's Bio Treat Center and Marijn Rijkers from InSciTe see plenty of opportunities in their new partnership that connects agriculture with the chemicals industry.

In 2018, InSciTe and the Bio Treat Center (BTC) on the Venlo Campus entered into a partnership. Marijn Rijkers and Ben Rooijackers explain why this is so important and what they want to achieve together.

‘BTC is involved in the pre-processing of biomass into a raw material for the circular economy. We make connections to start up new circular chains and connecting them to the chemical industry. InSciTe can be an excellent vehicle to make this happen. We spotted an opportunity to collaborate and increase the value of “spent mushroom compost,” residues from mushroom harvesting. This compost is rich in lignin, and coincidentally InSciTe is developing applications with feedstocks rich in lignin. In order to investigate the success rate of such novel circular value chains, we recently submitted a joint application for a financial contribution from the OPZuid programme,’ says Ben Rooijackers.
‘You can get renewable raw materials from products that people throw away (recycle), but you can also get them from waste streams from the forestry and agricultural sector. We see such residual flows as “raw material,” for biobased chemical and materials’ explains Marijn Rijkers. ‘The first value chain that we are developing together is already a good example, making consumer products from bio residues. This is truly unique and demonstrates the added value of this partnership.’

Ben Rooijackers nods in confirmation, saying: ‘Our goal is to make something really useful out of these waste streams, instead of sending them to incinerators. Incineration really is the final sink if nothing else is possible, in my view. You have to ask yourself how you can valorize organic waste streams as broadly as possible – in a circular way. For example, in order to grow hemp profitably, you'll have to use the fibre for building materials, for example, as well as produce medicinal oil from it.’

Of course, the relative newness of this field presents a large number of challenges for InSciTe and BTC.

‘Firstly, not many companies are familiar with “bio residues”: Processes are generally still based on fossil raw materials, and companies are still exploring more sustainable alternatives. They call me regularly, says Marijn Rijkers, asking me whether I've come across any biobased raw materials. If I say yes, they ask me when and where they can buy it. But that's not how it works. As a customer, you have to participate in order to be able to build sustainable value chains together. However, customers still aren't participating that often.’
‘Additionally, people underestimate the time it takes to implement the technology to process bio residues. A process to produce chemical components on a large scale takes at least ten years. The production facilities are also capital-intensive, so investors are reluctant to take risks,’ explains Ben Rooijackers.
Ending on an optimistic note, Marijn Rijkers adds: ‘But make no mistake, there’s definitely an economic benefit. There are already examples of biobased products being made cheaper than fossil products. And, regardless of your business model, you as a company will have a major social impact if you start producing “biobased”.’

The transition to a circular economy can be accelerated, and this is partly being driven by the effects of the current climate debate.

Both Ben Rooijackers and Marijn Rijkers think there is a lot to be done.
‘We are at the threshold of a transition, including in the chemical industry. By investing in key innovation, we can make the entire chemical industry in the Netherlands circular. The Association of the Dutch Chemical Industry (VNCI) has made it very clear how this can be achieved: the government simply needs to put its money where its mouth is. Over the next space of 30 years or so it would cost around 2 billion euros a year. This may seem a lot, but it’s easy to finance at national and international level. And last but not least, such an industrial transition will create more than 10,000 new jobs in the Netherlands.
Companies ask us to tell them how to become circular. As technologists, we have a responsibility to offer solutions to this. In these new value chains, we can use business cases to calculate how investments will pay off. Technologically it's not a problem; almost anything is possible. But it takes more than that. Often companies only start to innovate under pressure, for example as a result of an imminent CO2 tax,’ says Marijn Rijkers.
Ben Rooijackers certainly believes that innovations can be promoted if the government introduces some good incentive programmes. ‘Especially if the risks are reduced and the investments in time and money are compensated. This will create new and promising earnings models, as in the case of mushroom growers. If the spent mushroom compost is considered a waste product, then you need to pay for the waste. If it's put to good use in the circular economy, you pay less or even nothing – it gains in value.’
However, the most decisive step in this acceleration process is of a societal nature. The climate debate is having a positive impact: society is waking up, and companies are becoming increasingly aware of the urgency of the matter.

Both Marijn Rijkers and Ben Rooijackers are nature lovers, which gives them extra motivation in their work and personal ambitions.

‘I aim for the value chain we see and are working on to be a reality within ten years, and for it to have started a snowball effect. We're now on a journey that offers prospects, and hopefully this will lead to a broader journey with some fantastic developments. I've got my sights set on those prospects. I believe in them,’ says Ben Rooijackers.
Marijn Rijkers shares Ben's outlook: ‘This is about innovation in the circular economy, creating new factories and learning as we do so. However, I'm aware that we'll run into problems and it'll take some time to resolve them. It is and remains my aim to ensure industrial sites such as Chemelot can eliminate their reliance on fossil raw materials and instead be connected to renewable raw materials.’

Ben Rooijackers

Ben Rooijackers (Food Technologist) is a natural innovator who is always looking for improvements and new ways to do things. As a pioneer, he set up and grew several companies in the manure market and looked for solutions in manure processing that contribute towards the circular economy, including the innovative manure processing plant Merensteyn in the village of Ysselsteyn, in Dutch Limburg. Since 2017, Ben has been a project manager for various projects aimed at enhancing the value of spent mushroom compost. From the end of 2018, Ben has also been connected to Venlo’s ‘Bio Treat Center’ open innovation centre as a project manager, supporting the affiliated entrepreneurs in their efforts to develop new business. For example, he is involved in projects aimed at adding value to the contents of vegetables and other products.

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Marijn Rijkers

Marijn Rijkers (Chemical Technologist) worked at DSM for about 27 years and was regularly involved in biobased innovations. Marijn was responsible for DSM's corporate circular economy programme in circular raw materials, intermediary products, and other materials. While in this position, he was a member of InSciTe's biobased programme council and chaired the BBI-JU project BIOFOREVER.

Since May 2017, he has been managing the circular economy programme and the implementation of projects at InnoSyn. He also works on new business development at InSciTe in the biobased programme, developing a new phase with a broader range of services – named ‘InSciTe 2.0’ – as well as expanding and improving the pilot facilities.

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