A pilot plant set up at the InSciTe facility will be completed in April of next year. This facility will be used to convert biological residual flows and waste into high-quality products. For InSciTe, based at the Brightlands Chemelot Campus, this represents the next step in the valorisation of promising sustainable innovations. The first customer is the Eindhoven company Vertoro that will be producing oil from lignin. Other projects are sure to follow.
The energy transition encompasses more than switching from fossil fuels to sustainable energy from sun, wind and hydrogen. A feverish search is also on for clean (photo) alternatives to fossil fuels. “From lignin, for example,” says Emiel Staring, director of InSciTe, Institute for Science and Technology at the Brightlands campus in Geleen. “Lignin is what remains of wood as a residual product during the production of paper. In other words, it’s a renewable resource.
It looks like coffee grounds, and paper producers have to pay to be allowed to dispose of it. Researchers and entrepreneurs working at our labs have discovered this substance is really suitable for conversion to liquid oil. Just like fossil-based oil, biological, green oil is ready to use as a raw material for sustainable chemicals, materials and fuels.”
The product has been validated in the laboratory of the TU/e and small-scale tests have produced positive results. “We can’t fill our cars up with it yet, but lignin oil appears to be suitable as a fuel for ship’s engines,” Emiel Staring continues. “This is the first commercial application; in a few years, the shipping industry will be required by law to switch to cleaner fuels. Nowadays, ships discharge huge amounts of undesirable materials on the open sea, and this is very harmful for the environment. Switching to cleaner fuels is however a major challenge lignin oil can offer a solution for. Lignin oil doesn’t contain sulfur, heavy metals or other toxic materials. It does contain CO2 which is released during any type of combustive process. But it is a great step forward. It also offers other options. Lignin can serve as a full-fledged replacement for oil, and as a basic raw material for bio-plastics.”
United in an InSciTe consortium composed of UM, TU/e and Brightlands, scientists have already demonstrated lignin’s potential. These efforts resulted in the spin-off Vertoro which is based at the Brightlands Chemelot Campus. “Vertoro needs a pilot plant to produce on an even larger scale,” Emiel Staring explains. “Together with the campus, we have decided to build this plant. Working with the other consortium partners, Vertoro uses the facilities and wants to convert enough lignin to be able to test the oil in practice. Ultimately, Vertoro might be able to license the formula to a large-scale user or producer.”
InSciTe is investing a few million Euros in the pilot plant which will also be able to be used by other parties. “This is actually the idea. The plant is suitable for a variety of production methods for oil based on biological residuals or recycled plastics. We are talking to several parties, mainly start-ups and young companies from the Netherlands and abroad.
InSciTe was set up to test and later valorise ideas and plans involving new materials for industrial and biomedical applications, using an open innovation model in which the maximum amount of knowledge and skills can be shared. Everything is taken care of for them here at the campus and at the site. Start-ups and SMEs don’t have to invest in equipment; they have access to the knowledge and skills of specialists, and may apply these as needed. It’s ideal of course, since these companies usually don’t have enough elbow room for this type of investment.”
In 2015, Maastricht University, Maastricht UMC+, the Technical University Eindhoven, DSM and the Province of Limburg put up 80 million Euros for the start and set-up of InSciTe. The budget was intended as initial financing for a period of five years, after which the institute is expected to grow and become more independent. “We’re right on schedule. The pilot plant will be finished on time,” according to Emiel Staring. “We were also able to acquire considerable additional financing on the basis of our activities and projects. We work with and for different parties that are developing and testing new materials and potential applications for these. The use of our installations and facilities enables them to scale up these processes.”
Michael Boot of Vertoro says how happy he is with the construction of the pilot plant. “It’s crucial for us. We have to scale up now so we can supply samples to our customers on a larger scale. To do this, we need to be able to produce the necessary quantities of oil. Building our own installations isn’t an option. To do this, we would need millions in venture capital; this is not easy to find for a product that still has to prove its worth. InSciTe is really important for us in order to take the next step. It’s also nice that we were the first customer; it meant we were able to help with the design of the installations so that they can deliver exactly what Vertoro needs. I hope that we will be able to start before the summer of 2019.”
If Vertoro does license the concept, part of the proceeds will go to InSciTe. Emiel Staring: “We can use that money to invest in new facilities and services, to drive innovations. There are so many researchers with brilliant ideas, so many new entrepreneurs with ideas that get bogged down when it comes to the technical and quality implementation and the financing that goes along with this. At InSciTe, they can continue their development thanks to all the facilities and available knowledge workers. The Brightlands campus and the Chemelot industrial site can then offer all the options they need to set up production facilities, including support for financing. Who knows? The first major lignin plant in the world might be here in Geleen in a few years. As InSciTe, we will have played the role we wanted to play.”