We are in a pilot plant. The year is 2021. Mounds of white, fluffy flakes lie on the belt of the moving conveyor. Is it artificial snow? Or feathers perhaps? No: the soft, fluffy material has been produced from nappies.
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Used nappies, obviously. “Waste processing companies deliver the material to us in clean and sterile condition. We convert it back into raw materials for the chemical industry as one of our contributions to the circular economy. And that is just one example of how Biorizon reuses organic waste.”
We are talking to Monique Wekking, senior business developer at TNO and the Shared Research Center Biorizon. Biorizon is based at the Green Chemistry Campus (GCC) in the municipality of Bergen op Zoom where young technology companies develop raw materials from plant waste. The objective: to produce these raw materials commercially and improve the chemical industry's sustainability. Monique puts her heart and soul into bringing parties together to jointly work on overcoming these global challenges.
Monique enthusiastically tells us more. “To combat climate change, we have to come up with alternatives for fossil-based raw materials and reduce our CO2 emissions. The chemical industry wants to become more sustainable, partly in response to public pressure. We at TNO are proud to contribute our expertise in order to achieve that goal. So we set up Biorizon together with Flemish research agency VITO and the Energy Research Centre of the Netherlands (ECN) in order to develop a sustainable alternative for aromatics. Aromatics are important raw materials for the chemical industry: 40% of all chemicals are aromatic in nature.” Lubricants, plastics, coatings, paint and other products contain aromatics.
Together with waste processing companies and other important partners in the value chain, TNO is investigating the suitability of different waste flows for reuse: organic waste, manure, used nappies and incontinence products, and cellulose screenings. The latter are recovered from sewage using screening techniques and mainly consist of toilet paper fibres. Monique: “The waste processing industry is extremely interested in our innovations. However the task of bringing them to market is too complex and expensive for a single party. So we collaborate with the industry itself to achieve this via Biorizon's Shared Research approach. To share the costs initially, and the profits at a later stage.”
In ‘Waste2Aromatics’, one of their joint projects with the waste processing industry and other partners, Biorizon uses sugars from organic waste to make furans. Furans are the first building block for producing bio-aromatics. In another project, BIO-HArT, TNO converts furans into bio-aromatics together with the chemical industry and other knowledge institutes. As a result, the chemical industry now has access to a sustainable alternative for the first time. An important step forward on the journey to a circular economy and reduced CO2 emissions.
Biorizon's goal is to make commercial production of bio-aromatics possible in 2025, as part of a bio-based economy. The outlook is positive, but research is expensive. Monique: “That is why we are so pleased with the 5 million euros that the Provincial Authority of North Brabant recently gave us. Those funds, and the investments made by TNO, Vito, ECN and industrial partners will shorten the time Biorizon needs to perfect the process for producing bio-aromatics at the desired commercial level.”
At present, the chemical industry uses aromatics from petroleum. Even though 25 to 30% of the organic waste mountain is suitable for producing bio-aromatics. Monique: “That would not only lead to a cleaner world due to less waste, but also to a huge CO2 reduction of between 50 and 75%. The beauty of it is that TNO technology can also be used to produce bio-aromatics that cannot be made from fossil fuels - and those superior aromatics result in a better product. Our industrial partners have already tested this in coatings and other products. Yet another benefit of the bio-based economy.”
The level of demand for aromatics in the chemical industry, which is already substantial, is increasing by about 5% a year Potentially, between 5 and 15 million tonnes of bio-aromatics could be produced from all the organic waste in Europe each year. Monique: “At present, that waste is bio-digested, composted or incinerated. Using manure, organic kitchen and garden waste, used nappies and cellulose screenings to produce furans and bio-aromatics is completely new: it is a true bio-based innovation.”
Monique predicts major changes within the waste processing industry. “The entire waste collection process will change. Waste is no longer an unusable residual product that you have to destroy - it is a valuable raw material. As soon as effective and profitable technology becomes available for, for example, converting used nappies into raw materials, more municipal waste processing specialists will start to collect this waste as a separate flow.” She laughs: “I gave birth to our first child last year. A small mountain of nappies has passed through my hands during that brief period. All excellent raw materials! Now that I have a baby, I find my work even more valuable. After all, you want your children and grandchildren to grow up in a world that is as clean and healthy as it was during your own youth.”
Monique Wekking and her colleagues at TNO are currently working on plans for a pilot plant for producing bio-aromatics, which may be built at the Green Chemistry Campus. “Hopefully, the pilot plant will be running at full capacity in 2021. Our business plan looks promising. And if the pilot plant is a success, the first bio-aromatics factory will follow soon afterwards. Who knows, it may well be built in the province of North Brabant!”
Biorizon is a collaboration between TNO, Flemish research agency VITO, the Energy Research Centre of the Netherlands (ECN) and the Green Chemistry Campus.
The following organisations collaborate in the Waste2Aromatics project: TNO, AEB, Twence, Orgaworld, Waternet, Knowaste, STOWA, Vereniging Afvalbedrijven, Port of Amsterdam, SABIC, Biobased Delta and Zeton. TNO coordinates the project; the funding is provided by TKI Chemie and others.
The BIO-HArT project is a collaboration between TNO, VITO, Avantium, Chemelot InSciTe, University of Antwerp, KU Leuven, Bio Base Europe Pilot Plant, Eindhoven University of Technology, Maastricht University and DSM Materials Science Center. TNO coordinates; Interreg V Flanders-The Netherlands is one of the financiers.
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