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Sustainable relationships for sustainable chemistry

With the development of new technology, the Netherlands is reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. But another challenge is waiting; manufacturers will also have to handle raw materials more responsibly. The chemical industry plays a key role in the circular economy because it is, of course, at the start of the chain. Learn about the TopDutch region: Where businesses, knowledge institutions, and national and local governments work together to complete green closed cycles. And discover why this region in particular is so well suited for circular test projects.

According to estimates from the United Nations, the world will have a population of 9.5 billion people in 2050. That is 2 billion more than in 2020. A large amount of energy and raw materials will be needed to provide these future world citizens with food and other necessities. That is already causing friction: with the current global production, we need at least 1.7 times our planet in order to obtain sufficient raw materials. This is the conclusion of the Global Footprint Network, the organization that calculates the ecological footprint of more than two hundred countries each year. In other words, industrial countries are a real burden on our planet’s natural resources.

Our production and consumption levels are not only destroying nature - biodiversity has been decreasing for many years - but us as well. According to the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), the future shortage of natural resources will not only have economic consequences, such as increasing prices, but it will also lead to geopolitical tensions.

Transition to a circular economy

From 'take-make-waste' to circular

This reality means a change in our system is essential. Our economy has been linear for many years. We exploited natural resources, made something nice with them and then, relatively quickly, threw these products away. This take-make-waste society is outdated and must make way for a circular economy in the years to come. The plea from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a British foundation that wants to speed up the transition to a circular economy, is to no longer throw away natural resources and materials, but to reuse them. In addition, we must also stop depleting resources and use renewable and sustainable energy as much as possible.

The global concept of the circular economy can be found in the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that were drawn up by the United Nations in 2015. This international organization emphasizes the necessity of no longer putting economic growth above saving the environment. According to SDG 12, emphasis must be placed on, for example, sustainable production and consumption. Sustainable consumption and production is geared toward ‘doing more and better with less’, so net welfare gains from economic activities can increase by reducing resource use, degradation and pollution along the whole life cycle while increasing quality of life.

National Circular Economy

The Netherlands is a circular frontrunner

The Netherlands aims to be a completely circular economy by 2050. This goal was presented in 2016 in the National Circular Economy program. The country is already a frontrunner in circular businesses thanks to a well-developed recycling culture. Because the Netherlands is small, it has a tradition of handling raw materials efficiently. According to figures from Afvalfonds Verpakkingen (Packaging Waste Fund), the percentages for recycling materials, such as glass, paper, PET bottles, and steel are high - 78 and 95 percent - even in comparison with other European countries.

The chemical industry is also thinking circular. In the Northern Netherlands, Chemport Europe has been striving to close the resource-cycles for some time now. Companies share residual heat with each other and use creative methods to use each other’s residual flows. You can see this on the commercial terrain: the factories are connected with extensive networks of pipes. Since 2018, chemical giant Nouryon uses electricity from the biomass power plant, and a 2.7 km long network of pipes was installed specifically for this purpose. Nouryon supplies hydrogen to ‘neighbor’ BioMCN which then uses it to produce methanol. This means there are countless waste flows that can be used as a resource again.

The chemical cluster also has a common mission to gradually replace fossil resources with green, renewable resources. The region is absolutely perfect for this: the vast agricultural land contains large amounts of biomass - sugar beets, potatoes, grains, wood scraps - just waiting to be used. Furthermore, with an increase in wind energy from the sea and green energy coming from Scandinavia, there is an abundance of green energy readily available.

Everything needed to create

Entire chain represented

‘Although Chemport Europe is a relatively small chemical cluster, the region stands out because the entire chain is represented,’ says Patrick Brouns, Economic Affairs representative from Groningen Province. ‘It has a lot of biomass, green energy, two seaports, there are base chemical, plastic, and fiber production companies as well as a couple of large recycling businesses. This means the region has everything needed to create a green and circular chain in-house.’

Brouns also points out the presence of renowned knowledge institutions. ‘There is a unique exchange between the business community and the universities and university colleges. They work together to accelerate innovation.’ According to the Groningen representative, the region also functions as a living lab; new technology can be experimented with on a laboratory scale, and then scaled up to a demonstration installation or test factory. And the province is happy to facilitate promising technology through the provision of subsidies or risk capital. ‘The 2019 budget available from the Regional Investment Funds Groningen is 12 million euro,’ according to Brouns.

The region stands out because the entire chain is represented. It has a lot of biomass, green energy, two seaports, there are base chemical, plastic, and fiber production companies as well as a couple of large recycling businesses. This means the region has everything needed to create a green and circular chain in-house.

Patrick Brouns, Economic Affairs representative from Groningen Province

A major benefit for new businesses is that it is easy for them to connect to the existing chain. Brouns states: ‘Acquiring raw materials is easy for businesses at Chemport Europe, and this also applies to finding customers for their products or residual flows. The businesses often add something extra, and this makes the chain even stronger.’ An illustration of this, according to the representative, is technology company Avantium. ‘In the biorefinery, operational as a test factory since last year, Avantium upgrades existing biomass flows to pure flows. In other words: the company succeeds in extracting valuable substances from organic waste.’

Chain collaboration is the key to successful innovation at Chemport Europe. Businesses, knowledge institutions, and national and local governments work together to create green closed cycles. Read more about how this works in the TopDutch region in two circular test projects.

Bio-based building blocks


BioBTX is succeeding in transforming green residual flows and contaminated plastics into valuable chemicals, here in the TopDutch region
Technology company BioBTX is a typical example of a young business that is succeeding in realizing a pioneering role in greening ambitions. The company developed a technology to create valuable chemical building blocks - benzene, toluene, and xylene (creating the acronym BTX) - from green resources. ‘These aromatics are used in the chemical industry on a large scale, for example, in the production of plastics,’ says Pieter Imhof, Managing Director at BioBTX. ‘The chemicals are currently still made out of fossil resources, but we are proving that it can also be done with biomass.’

The idea to make benzene, toluene, and xylene out of biomass originated at KNN, a Groningen-based consultancy firm specialized in bio-based production. The bureau founded BioBTX in 2012, together with chemical industry company Syncom and several researchers from the University of Groningen. After years of testing on a laboratory scale, the technology has now been proven to work and the company opened a demo factory last year. A large, shining installation was constructed in the hall at the Zernike Advanced Processing university campus in Groningen, where BioBTX conducts its experiments. The experimental installation was realized with the help of European funding and investments from the Groningen venture capital fund Carduso Capital. BioBTX was also backed financially by the provinces of Groningen and Drenthe and the municipality of Emmen.

Pieter Imhof, Managing Director at BioBTX

We can count on the knowledge of researchers from the University of Groningen. Collaboration is the key to success.

Pieter Imhof, Managing Director at BioBTX

All types of biomass
BioBTX is striving toward circular processes and uses crude glycerol as a natural resource. ‘It is a waste product from manufacturer SunOil in Emmen that produces biodiesel from recycled frying oil. But we can actually already use all types of liquid biomass, as long as it does not contain too much water. A mishmash of organic waste is not a problem either’, Imhof explains. BioBTX even manages to convert various types of contaminated plastic waste into BTX. ‘This so-called thermal recycling has been proven to work on a laboratory scale, and we will soon be rolling it out in our demo factory. We will expand the current installation for this purpose’, says Imhof.

According to Imhof, the BioBTX technology consists of a process chain. The first step is thermal decomposition, also called pyrolysis. In this process, the biomass is heated without adding oxygen; this breaks it down into small hydrocarbon molecules. In the next step, the particles pass a catalyst that rebonds them in a specific way. The catalyst was designed to create a mixture of benzene, toluene, and xylene.

Technology race
The potential is great: BTX’s potential market consists of hundreds of millions of tons. But time is of the essence because the competition is catching up. Imhof even calls it a race. ‘Several technology companies are experimenting with green BTX. The first company that manages to create BTX from biomass on an industrial scale will have a huge lead.’ According to Imhof, Groningen-based BioBTX has a good chance of winning. Collaboration with local partners is the key to success, and the company can count on the knowledge from researchers at the University of Groningen. The companies at the chemical industrial cluster are also interested in accelerating innovation. For example, plastic fiber manufacturer Teijin Aramid will be collaborating with BioBTX to research how they can make the production of their Twaron fiber more environmentally friendly by using bio-aromatics as a chemical resource.

It is not obvious that the plastic fiber manufacturer would be interested in making this step in the chain more environmentally friendly.

Edward Groen, Site Manager for Teijin Aramid in Delfzijl

Quality demands are high
Teijin itself does not buy the benzene, toluene, and xylene. ‘So it is not obvious that the plastic fiber manufacturer would be interested in making this step in the chain more environmentally friendly’, says Edward Groen, Site Manager for Teijin Aramid in Delfzijl. ‘For the production of Twaron, we buy raw materials, such as aniline and para-xylene, from international chemical companies. These companies produce those materials out of benzene, toluene, and xylene.

We would like to see our suppliers invest in efforts to make this part of the production chain greener. But this is not yet the case.’ Because Teijin Aramid believes in BioBTX’s technology, the company will look into the possibility of making the super-strong Twaron fiber out of green chemicals from BioBTX. ‘This will eventually help to persuade larger chemical companies to adopt this technology.’ The research trajectory between Teijin Aramid and BioBTX goes as follows: the biomass-based BTX is converted into raw materials for the aramid fibers by Syncom in Groningen. Teijin Aramid’s R&D department then turns these raw materials into the PPTA polymer and the Twaron yarn is spun. The goal is to research if the super-strong Twaron fiber can be made out of biomass, while still fulfilling the same high-quality requirements as the Twaron from fossil chemicals.

The more companies that embrace our technology, the more willing the intermediary chemical giants will be to adopt our technology in the future.

Pieter Imhof, Managing Director at BioBTX

Special ecosystem
BioBTX has previously collaborated with biodiesel manufacturer SunOil and polyester manufacturer Cumapol in Emmen. BioBTX and Cumapol have proven that it is technically possible to make polyester out of the bio-based BTX. ‘Collaboration with local partners, such as SunOil, Cumapol, and Teijin Aramid is important’, says BioBTX Managing Director Pieter Imhof. ‘The more companies that embrace our technology, the more willing the intermediary chemical giants will be to adopt our technology in the future.’

‘The ecosystem of the Northern Netherlands is special’, Imhof thinks, who moved to this region when he became Managing Director at BioBTX in 2017. ‘Finding partners is easy. Local entrepreneurs are open-minded and willing to work with you.’ Imhof thinks it is quite exceptional that partners do not just think about their own goals, but are willing to work toward a better future for everyone. ‘The province is also interested in green initiatives. All of this makes it interesting for our company to scale up our technology in the Northern Netherlands’, Imhof says.

Staying in the loop

KNN Cellulose

From flushed toilet paper to  asphalt and raw materials for the chemical industry
In a circular economy, no resources are wasted; ideally they are kept ‘in the loop’ indefinitely. It is therefore important that the residual flows retain their value and can be reused as raw materials.

In the Netherlands, entrepreneurs are often tapping into new markets with circular business models. They are quite creative in reusing resources. For example, in 2016 Friesland built a bicycle path out of asphalt containing recycled toilet paper. The project attracted international attention; cyclists in Amsterdam, Utrecht, and Groningen are now also cycling on asphalt containing toilet paper. The driving force behind this remarkable road surface is KNN Cellulose. This company from Friesland developed a technique to filter cellulose out of sewage water and process it into asphalt. The recovered cellulose is used as a binding agent to make sure that pebbles and bitumen - the main ingredients in asphalt - are mixed together well. ‘Cellulose was already being used in the production of asphalt, but up until now it was always new cellulose - usually from trees.’

Erik Pijlman, Managing Director at KNN Cellulose

Transparent business community
‘The impact is huge’, says Erik Pijlman, Managing Director at KNN Cellulose. ‘The Netherlands flushes 180,000 metric tons of toilet paper every year. That flows into the sewage purification plant and is then burned as waste. A pity, because it contains valuable raw materials. Each Dutch person uses an average of 14 kilos of toilet paper per year, and 200,000 trees are needed for the total production of toilet paper.’ That the TopDutch region has the world’s first bike path made of recycled toilet paper is not illogical, according to Pijlman. ‘The region has a transparent business community. Partners with similar sustainability ambitions were quickly found.’ KNN Cellulose consciously chose to involve willing entrepreneurs and government authorities in the ‘Van Afval naar Asfalt’ (From Waste To Asphalt) project from the very beginning.

Pijlman details ‘a circular economy means that new chains and products are created that the businesses had not collaborated on previously. It is important that they share their ideas in this new circular production chain. You have to be certain that the circular product will be appreciated.’ In addition to KNN Cellulose, six regional partners were closely involved in building the bike path made of recycled toilet paper: the province of Friesland, water authorities Wetterskip Fryslân, knowledge center for the water authorities STOWA, supplier Esha Infra Solutions, and the two contracting companies Jansma and Roelofs.

The technology that filters cellulose out of sewage water is marketed under the name Cellvation. KNN Cellulose developed the technique together with technology company Cirtec. The cellulose that was recovered from the sewage water was given the name Recell. explains that ‘the recovered cellulose can also be used as a raw material for biocomposites, bioplastic, concrete, and insulation material, for example.’ KNN Cellulose’s discovery has made a big impact: ‘One ton of Recell prevents 2 tons of COemissions. This development therefore contributes to both national and global climate objectives.’

A circular economy means that new chains and products are created that the businesses had not collaborated on previously. It is important that they share their ideas in this new circular production chain.

Erik Pijlman, Managing Director at KNN Cellulose

Recovered cellulose as chemical resource
But KNN Cellulose also sees a lot of potential in cellulose as a resource for the chemical industry. ‘The recovered cellulose particles are transformed into, for example, glucose and monochloroacetic acid, both of which are an interesting alternative for fossil-based raw materials.’ The company found a suitable partner in chemical company Nouryon at Chemport Europe. In late 2018, a development phase was started with scientists from the University of Groningen and the Institute for Sustainable Process Technology (ISPT). Using the facilities at the Zernike Advanced Processing complex, the team will spend the next four years developing the technology to the pilot stage. The consortium received a national subsidy for the Cell-U-Value-project.

The research project focuses on finding the fastest and cheapest way of transforming cellulose into valuable chemicals. ‘We are considering two possible routes, a chemical and a biological’, says Gert-Jan Euverink, Professor of Chemical Technology at the University of Groningen. ‘Chemical technology is fast, but it leads to undesirable by-products. Although biological technology does not produce any by-products, it does have more steps. Furthermore, enzymes, which are relatively expensive, are needed for the biological route. We can of course re-use the enzymes, but they do not function indefinitely.’ The research also focuses on how the chemicals that are produced can be transformed into acetic acid. ‘This material is very interesting for chemical company Nouryon that is also a partner in this project says Euverink.’

According to KNN Cellulose's Managing Director, it is not just about finding the right technology. ‘We are actively looking for partners outside the chemical industry that want to create a new chain together. Sewage purification companies, for example. But also waste processors, because we can recover a great deal of cellulose from household waste’, says Erik Pijlman.

The soft drink giants want to introduce bioplastic bottles, the toy factories ‘green’ building blocks - in order to offer consumers a truly sustainable product.

Pieter Imhof, Managing Director at BioBTX

Multinationals as motivation
The industrial world is working hard to make production chains more sustainable. Pieter Imhof, Managing Director at BioBTX, knows that large brands such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo or Lego are putting pressure on their suppliers at the start of the chain. ‘The soft drink giants want to introduce bioplastic bottles, the toy factories ‘green’ building blocks - in order to offer consumers a truly sustainable product.’

These types of multinationals follow the innovations in the (chemical) industry very closely. And the BioBTX technology is getting enormous interest, according to Imhof, who receives representatives from well-known multinationals once in a while. Many consumer manufacturers are chomping at the bit to make the entire production chain green and circular. ‘Big brands also motivate their suppliers - sometimes with financial injections - to go green’, says Imhof. A telling example is the news that furniture factory IKEA has purchased a share in the Morssinkhof-Rhymoplast company in Drenthe, that recycles PET. IKEA wants to be part of the latest developments, thus guaranteeing access to raw materials in the future.

‘Though the transition to a completely green and circular industry does move slowly’, Imhof says. ‘Scaling up a new technology and then rolling it out to the commercial production can easily take ten to fifteen years. All the links in the production chain will have to invest and transform.’ But in the end, a green future will shine bright, offering endless opportunities to both the Dutch and the global economy. That is why partners in the TopDutch region remain creative in finding new, green, raw materials. After the potatoes, the sugar beets, and wood chips, the researchers at the Hanze University of Applied Sciences even see potential in grass. You can not only extract energy from grass, you can also make packaging, and even medicine. The technology was proven in the laboratory and is now looking forward to seeing who will take this plant to a higher level. To be continued...

Collaboration for innovation

Zernike Advanced Processing: Testing ground for  the biobased economy
The Northern Netherlands has a semi-industrial testing facility for new ‘biobased’ products. In the Zernike Advanced Processing (ZAP)-facility, knowledge institutions and businesses can collaborate on innovative solutions for the biobased economy. Seven projects have already been started.

Businesses can get support with research questions from three educational institutions: the University of Groningen, the Hanze University of Applied Sciences in Groningen and Regional Education Center Noorderpoort. ZAP works with biomass residues from sugar beets, potatoes, grass, from pruning, lupine, hemp, etc. Biomass is now often used for incineration in power plants, but it can provide so much more. Research at ZAP focuses on enhancing biomass. Raw materials from biomass are incorporated in materials or used in the pharmaceutical industry, cosmetics, and the clothing industry.


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