Biomass has a wealth of potential as a resource for bulk products such as lactic acid or ethanol. In practice, however, it is difficult to develop successful production chains. Commissioned by the Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO), Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research has developed a method that can help companies and government authorities create biobased chains, from source materials to end products.
According to senior scientist Wolter Elbersen at the institute for Food & Biobased Research, the method is mainly intended for businesses and investors looking to establish a biobased production chain locally, or for export to the Netherlands or other EU countries. “They often have trouble evaluating whether developing a biobased production or export chain is feasible or how it can be done commercially,” says Elbersen. “This method provides an insight into which factors are at play.”
The method can be described as a step-by-step plan for the development of a biobased export chain. Firstly, it includes a classification of the various types of biomass. Scientist Jan van Dam at Food & Biobased Research explains that an analysis was made of which crops and products are most suitable, and how market demands are expected to develop. “We then described how businesses or investors can use a SWOT analysis to evaluate whether a local crop is a good starting point for the development of a biobased trade chain. This includes factors such as the availability of the crop and the infrastructure, security of supplies, costs and the degree to which the source material can be produced in a sustainable way.”
Finally, the method offers a list of criteria for determining the most suitable location for converting the source material into tradable products. It deals with questions such as which country has the best infrastructure and the most educated employees? Which location offers the lowest operational costs and the best logistics? And where do the co-products or by-products have the most value? This involves issues such as heat for heating networks, CO2 for CO2 fertilisation or lignin for new chemical products.
Analysis of five export chains
The method was used in the Ukraine, a country that is currently facing many challenges but which has considerable potential when it comes to biomass source materials. Van Dam: “We analysed five biobased export chains in the Ukraine, including a chain for producing polylactic acid from maize, which can then be used in various biobased plastics, chemicals or fuels. Another example is the chain for the production of bio-ethanol and biobased polyethylene from sugar beet.”
The analyses showed that it may be cheaper to convert crops into biobased bulk products in the Ukraine itself, but that the Netherlands achieves better marks for issues such as market demand, supply security, infrastructure and logistics. In addition, the analyses showed that more value can be created from by-products in the Netherlands.
The Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO) financed the project as part of the Netherlands Programme Sustainable Biomass.