Science - April 21, 2005

Bio-economy has wind in its sails

The barometer for A&F is still predicting a storm, but the forecast for the Biobased Products division is good. In fact, the prospects for the division have never been better. A financial injection from the Ministry of Agriculture will not be far off.

‘We were among the first right from the start’, says Ir Erik van Seventer, director of the Biobased Products division of A&F. ‘And now we are in the lead. We were one of the first groups to develop plastics from starch. The biodegradable bag you see around potatoes in the supermarket is one of our products. And now we are one of the most advanced groups in the world. We have researchers from Canada looking on to see if they can learn something from us.’

As Wb arrives to speak to Van Seventer on a Friday afternoon, a delegation from the Ministry of Economic Affairs has just left. The director is in good form. His division is doing well and the demand for green technology is growing. Paradoxically, this is thanks in part to the policies of George Bush. You can accuse Bush of many things, but not of being a tree-hugging nature lover.

Arab oil
‘The environment is not important to Bush’, says Van Seventer. ‘He did not sign the Kyoto protocol. Bush is more concerned about his country’s dependence on oil from Arab countries. If the conflict in the Middle East gets out of hand, this vulnerability may prove to be fatal for the U.S. This is why his government has invested a lot of money in scientific research to extract fuels from corn leaves and stems. This has provided a stimulus in our field of research.’

Van Seventer’s division works on technology that converts biomass into chemical raw materials and biological fuels. ‘Biomass is what is left on the fields after the farmers have harvested the important products’, says Van Seventer. ‘But biomass is also the waste, or rather the by-products, produced by the food industry. Factories used to make animal feed out of it, but they are not so eager to do that anymore. The regulations have become stricter and the number of livestock is shrinking.’

When the first tests with biofuels were started, researchers made alcohol from the sugar chains in grains and potatoes. Now the emphasis of the research is shifting toward breaking down the less degradable and woody fibres in the non-edible parts of agricultural products. Twenty-five people within A&F are working on this research. The same number are looking into whether micro-organisms can convert substances in biomass into industrial raw materials, and another 25 are investigating whether it is possible to develop completely new biomaterials based on biomass.

Softening agents
‘In these projects we are looking not only at techniques that will allow us to make existing products in a more environment-friendly way’, says Van Seventer, ‘but also at materials that are not available on the market. Materials with new characteristics. We developed paint dryers, for example, based on iron and vitamin C, and alternative softening agents for plastics.’

These developments have gained momentum in the past months, explains the director. The Ministry of Agriculture, which had until recently almost ignored A&F’s research, officially changed course on 19 December 2004. Minister Cees Veerman sent a letter entitled ‘Growing in Competition’ to the Lower House of Parliament, in which he laid out the direction he believes agriculture in the Netherlands should take. One of the points he focused on was the use of agricultural by-products for green fuels and raw materials. A task force of people from the ministries of Economic Affairs, Environment and Agriculture was charged with stimulating the development of the biobased economy.

This change in course was given only passing attention in the media, but to Van Seventer it was big news. ‘Harriëte Bos and her colleagues had been trying since the summer of 2004 to tell The Hague what we were doing here. Within a few months the Ministry of Agriculture reacted and adjusted its policy. This is very fast.’ The expectation is that Veerman’s decision will provide an impulse of millions of euros for the research in Wageningen.

Natural gas fund
This impulse comes in addition to one from B-Basic, a project paid for by the Ministry of Economic Affairs with profits from the sale of Dutch natural gas. The natural gas fund is intended to help stimulate the economy, and the ministry decided recently that it was time to invest nearly 60 million in research towards biobased fuels. A large part of the money has been spent in Wageningen. The Wageningen groups, led by A&F, have formed a consortium with researchers in Delft and Groningen. Policymakers are not the only ones concerned with biofuels and the production of chemical raw materials from agricultural products. Large companies are also hoping that alternatives will be available in the near future for current oil-based fuels and industrial raw materials. The price of oil is increasing steadily and no turning point is in sight.

‘In the seventies and eighties there was a crisis because OPEC countries reduced production’, says Van Seventer. ‘People became suddenly aware that we had to do something about biofuels, but this was forgotten as soon as the oil-producing countries normalised the situation. The increase in the oil price in the past few years has not been created. Demand exceeds supply at the moment, and the scarcity on the market will only increase in the future. Companies are aware of this, which is why Akzo, DSM and Shell are participating in the B-Basic consortium.’

If signs from the European capital are correct, the wind that the Wageningen research of biomaterials currently has in its sails will only become stronger. Experts tell us that when the extensive EU Seventh Framework Programme for research and development starts in 2007, Brussels will be putting more emphasis on the use of biomass and biobased products. The prospects for Van Seventer’s group, including the partners within Wageningen University, are good. ‘The outside world will be expecting a lot of us’, says Van Seventer, who would be greatly disappointed if bureaucratic hurdles get in the way of Biobased Products. ‘If that happens, Wageningen will miss a great opportunity.’

Willem Koert