If the Dutch chemical industry were to halve its use of fossil raw materials and switch instead to biomass such as grass, beet or maize, tens of thousands of new jobs would be created. They would mainly be needed in the agricultural sector – where employment levels are steadily decreasing – to extract the renewable raw materials. During his farewell address as Professor of Valorisation of Plant Product Chains at Wageningen University on 23 January, Johan Sanders speaks out for such a switch.
Calculations show that in the Netherlands replacing half of the fossil raw materials for the chemical industry with biomass would create 20,000 new jobs, mainly in raw material production. The transition from fossil substances to biomass would create another 15,000 jobs in the chemical industry, particularly in further processing biomass. This switch would not lead to more expensive products. Neither would it need to be subsidised because the use of biomass would drastically reduce capital costs, according to Prof. Sanders in his farewell address. At present there are about 80,000 FTEs in the chemical sector in the Netherlands.
For many years, the trend in industry and agriculture has been to increase work productivity: fewer people to achieve the same production levels. This has been made possible by automation, robotisation and other innovations, as well as by using fossil energy and machines instead of people. However, such increases in productivity demand considerable investment capital while the risks are considerable, which in turn limits innovation to the incremental variety. Deployment of all biocomponents to their maximum value demands much less capital, which means implementation on a small scale becomes economically viable.
To achieve this switch, the European chemical industry will need to innovate. "Not having cheap fossil raw materials like elsewhere in the world means there's only one way forward", Prof. Sanders believes, "and that’s to use chemical components from biomass. Large and risky business investments can then be avoided. However, we need biomass with interesting components if we are to do this.”
A simple economic calculation demonstrates how lucrative the results could be. For example, refining grass to produce three components would cost about €180, including starting materials. These components – 30% fibres, 15% protein and 55% 'juice' – together bring in €205. The protein yield on its own would not cover costs, but biorefining becomes profitable if the yield of fibres goes to paper, cardboard or energy and the yield from the juice components to chemicals, animal feed or fertilisers. Prof. Sanders: ”Five years ago there was no sign of enthusiasm from the chemical or paper sectors. Now we've reached the point where biorefining really will provide added value".
During his career as Professor of Valorisation of Plant Production Chains at Wageningen University, Prof. Johan Sanders did research into renewable raw materials that could replace fossil oil and coal. His idea is not to utilise all valuable biomass for producing green energy, as now often happens, but instead to first remove valuable components, for example those that can be used as basic materials for chemicals. The remainder could be used for less complex functions, such as generating electricity or heat.