The Netherlands is an ideal breeding ground for an economy that
depends on plants rather than on oil. In order to make the most of
this position Serious investments should be made in the biobased
economy, says a committee of éminences grises. Wageningen UR has an important role to play here, but the top sector policy threatens to spoil the party.
Cows eat grass. Any child knows that, but don’t come to Johan Sanders with this received wisdom. Cows and grass? An outmoded idea, and high time it was abandoned: it is a crying shame that we waste all that good stuff on cattle. ‘The proteins in grass are actually much too good for cows, and it would be more efficient to feed them to pigs,’ says Sanders. To do this, you first need to break down the grass using biorefinery techniques. The grass fibres go to the cows, and the proteins to the pigs. Cows thrive on maize protein too. It is also possible to extract sugars in the refining process and to collect the organic acids and amino acids for the chemical industry. ‘Five years ago, when we could still hardly pronounce the word biobased, there was no market for these products so it was not financially viable. But the world has woken up. I expect that the use of biorefinery on grass will get going soon. By extracting all those different organic components, we can double the efficiency of a hectare of grass.’
There is an urgent need to use plants more judiciously, says Sanders, ‘in order to feed a growing world population, and to maintain biodiversity, as well as to provide industry with raw materials when the oil runs out. Get twice as much out of the same quantity of crops.’ Welcome to the world of the biobased economy according to Johan Sanders. He retired from the university in January as professor of Biobased Commodity Chemicals. Now he is working as an advisor to two small startup companies, one of them grass refining company Grassa, and he works part-time at Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research. Together with Dutch research organization TNO and the University of Delft Wageningen leads the field in research and development targeting an economy that is less dependent on oil. For a long time, this transition was synonymous in public debate with the cultivation of crops such as oilseed rape for fuel production. This led to resistance from NGOs who feared that food production would suffer from the cultivation of fuel crops.
Barrel of oil
To Sanders’ satisfaction, attention has turned to the petrochemical industry. More than 90 percent of the contents of a barrel of oil are used for transport; the rest goes into petrochemicals for making plastics, for instance. ‘Fossil fuels consist solely of carbon and hydrogen. In the petrochemical industry, oxygen atoms have to be used, at a high cost in capital and energy,’ says Sanders. ‘That can be done much more cheaply by using biomass as your raw material. There is usually a lot of oxygen in that already.’ The Netherlands is in a fantastic position to make the transition to a biobased economy, in Sanders’ opinion. ‘We have good ports, fantastic infrastructure and logistics, a chemical industry that accounts for 10 percent of the GNP, a strong agriculture sector and agro-industry, and a high level of expertise in all these fields.’ A similar picture is painted by a committee of éminences grises from the worlds of agriculture, chemicals and research, in a report called ‘Strategy for a Green Society’ which sees a central role for biobased materials in a biobased economy. The Scientific and Technological Committee on the Biobased Economy (WTC) handed the report to minister of Economic Affairs Henk Kamp at the beginning of February.
The committee indicates that interest in the biobased economy is gradually increasing, but also makes clear that there is an urgent need for more momentum. Increasingly, the petrochemical industry is disappearing to the countries where the oil is produced. If the Netherlands wants to keep its chemical industry, it will need to focus on smart new options based on biomass. That is the only way it will be able to compete in the long term with countries such as China and the US. Somewhat melodramatically, the WTC declares that a rapprochement between the chemical and the agriculture sectors is ‘important to the survival of both sectors’.
Wageningen is the key hub for the biobased economy, says Sanders. ‘In Wageningen we have a complete over view of the whole production chain: from plant breeding and soil fertility to the processing of biomass and the applications of the chemical products. We know how to motivate farmers, how the agricultural economy works, how the logistics work in this sector, and how chemical companies operate. That is our strength. We should do nice academic research, but above all, we should work on how it can be applied. At the moment I still sometimes see everyone riding their own hobby horses, and I think we need to collaborate even more.’
In recent years Wageningen has succeeded in making a name for itself in the field of biorefinery. ‘I think in general that our position in terms of biobased has got steadily stronger in recent years, both in research and in education,’ observes René Wijffels, professor of Bioprocess Engineering. ‘In the strategic plan that ends this year, we really went for biorefinery. The money that Wageningen invested itself – seed money – has delivered fantastic returns. We got 20 times as much from the market. One of our strengths is public-private cooperation. We need to expand that even more in future.’ Gerrit Eggink, project manager at Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research and professor of Industrial Technology, is closely involved in the research programme Be-basic, which is coordinated from Delft but with the full involvement of Wageningen. This programme was launched in 2010 with 60 million euros of gas revenue money from the Dutch government, doubled by industrial and research partners. The WTC argues for a doubling of efforts in the field of biobased. Eggink has his doubts as to the feasibility of that. Gas revenues have had their day and funding from that source is drying up. He does expect that research will get a big boost when the Bioprocess Pilot Facility is opened in Delft this year, providing a testing ground for upscaling processes developed in the lab. ‘Building that facility cost tens of millions, but the biobased processes that we at Wageningen UR can work on with the industry can be tested there.’
This collaboration is probably a decisive factor in getting the biobased economy off the ground, expect the sages of the WTC. They recommend that the Netherlands concentrates on the production of plastics. A proposal that meets the wholehearted approval of Harriëtte Bos, programme manager at Food & Biobased Research. ‘We in the Netherlands are very good at making plastics; several types were originally developed here. About 80 percent of the naphtha used by the petrochemical industry ends up in plastics. So bioplastics are very interesting and there is a growing market for them.’ As an example, a couple of years back Cocacola replaced one of the components of its plastic bottles with a plant-based product, so that the bottle is now 30 percent plant-based and 70 percent fossil fuel-based. The business unit where Bos works – with about 90 researchers – is slowly growing. But she is not complacent. She does not quite dare to believe in the ‘doubling of efforts’ that the WTC asks for. She expects that systematic funding will run out when the Biobased Performance Materials research programme ends shortly. ‘We are affected by the top sector policy, which was meant to be the ideal collaboration between the private sector, research institutes and government, but in practice those parties have a stranglehold on each other, so that really nothing is possible anymore,’ says Bos. ‘The government used to have the last word on what they considered the most important research lines. Now there is no longer anyone at the helm, and the focus is on trying to fit the bill.’
The disadvantage is that the biobased economy in the Netherlands does not have a top sector of its own. ‘We have to place our research under different top sectors and that turns out to be difficult. When the innovation contract was drawn up in 2011 we took a poll to see in which fields companies wanted to invest in R&D in the coming years. There was the most commitment for bioplastics, running to millions even, but up to now no extra budget for that has been allocated by the top sectors. That slowness is really tragic. The danger is that the materials research will fall apart – and that is precisely what is badly needed to get the biobased economy off the ground. International companies can choose which country they do their research in. For that they want support from the government. If they don’t get that here, they go abroad, somewhere where there is money. DSM, for example, now has several big research projects in the US.’ More commitment from the government is urgently needed: Johan Sanders agrees on that point: ‘Our natural gas supplies and the revenues that flow into the treasury from them have worked against us. As researchers we shall have to make clearer what opportunities the Netherlands has for the taking, as well as dangers are lurking for our competitive advantage.’