The three Northern provinces of the Netherlands could join forces to become a major producer and supplier of renewable resources for the regional production of ‘green’ chemicals, plastics and animal feed. This is one of the conclusions from research carried out by Wageningen University & Research, Greenlincs and the University of Groningen. Close collaboration with the German Weser-Ems area could boost the supply of ‘home-grown’ biomass raw materials. This would enable the North-Netherlands to develop into a world-class player.
The North-Netherlands has a combination of strengths: good seaports, a chemicals and plastics cluster, a strong arable farming sector and plenty of room to expand livestock farming. In addition, the region has good access to knowledge. But the region is also facing challenges: there are serious plans to cut back natural gas activities and the existing chemical clusters in Delfzijl and Emmen are facing a decrease in activities. The Ministry of Economic Affairs asked the project team to analyse new opportunities for economic growth in the region.
Opportunities for the chemical and material industry
The combination of identified strengths provides the region with certain opportunities. These include growth in the area’s relatively small chemical clusters thanks to the production of biobased chemical building blocks and processes. The area can use these building blocks to improve its position in the bioplastics and other biobased materials industry. Sufficient proteins can be produced for animal feed, while the problem of manure can be reduced.
“To capitalise on these opportunities we need to mobilise enough companies willing to take ownership of the opportunities,” says Harriëtte Bos, senior researcher at Wageningen Food & Biobased Research and co-author of the Noord4Bio study. “These companies can pool their resources, set priorities and implement plans with the help of networks such as the Eemsdelta, Greenlincs and GreenPAC.”
New economic impulse
The researchers conducting the study looked specifically at ways of linking opportunities in the agricultural sector, a major sector in the North-Netherlands, with the existing chemical and plastics infrastructure in Delfzijl and Emmen. Smart use of this infrastructure could create a flourishing Biobased Economy, which would give the region a new economic impulse in the medium-long term (5-10 years). Bos: “We based the study on three important economic pillars for the Biobased Economy: molecules from biomass that can be converted into functionalised chemicals, materials from biomass with functional properties, and proteins for animal feed, which we can release using biorefinery techniques.'
Nine clusters with specific resources (or product focus) have been defined, including a focus on carbohydrates, proteins or cellulose, but also on biocomposites, bioplastics and biobased chemistry. Estimates of the potential scope, required investment and projected employment figures have been made for each of these clusters. The clusters are closely connected, as they partly rely on each other’s growth.
The clusters focusing on carbohydrates for chemicals, biobased chemicals in Delfzijl, routes from carbohydrates to bioplastics and proteins for Dutch and German animal feed, are currently the most important. Bos: “If we can start developing these clusters soon, the economy in the North-Netherlands will be given a huge boost. Moreover, it will serve as an incentive for collaboration between the chemical and agricultural sectors, an important condition to enable a Biobased Economy.”
Biorefinery cluster in North-Netherlands
The project team is advising the region to invest in a biorefinery cluster: a fermentation plant where fermentable sugars can be converted into chemical building blocks and a biorefinery plant where other residual waste flows, such as sugars that are difficult to process (e.g. those from lignocellulose) can be treated and separated. Alignment between this industry and the existing polymer cluster in Emmen would also generate interesting opportunities for market outlets for fermentable and other sugars: high-grade bioplastics. Connections between the North-Netherlands and North-German animal feed and dairy industries, as well as efforts to persuade companies, aided by the Regional Investment fund Groningen (RIG), to invest in the biorefinery cluster, are also important steps in getting the northern Biobased Economy off the ground.
Bos: “The development of a cluster like this often acts as a magnet for companies. We want companies to embrace the plan and turn to each other to achieve their goals. The plan will only succeed if the parties are willing to look beyond their own horizons.”