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Biobased Products Innovation Plant: 'Innovation for companies’

The Biobased Products Innovation Plant is the breeding ground for successful biobased products such as starch plastics from potato skins and Biofoam from PLA. Join us on a tour of this impressing research facility – part of Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research – in which applied research for companies has been conducted for more than three decades.

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The Biobased Products Innovation Plant is located in Axis, the same building on Wageningen Campus that accommodates the applied research institute Food & Biobased Research. Two doors down from the reception we suddenly find ourselves in the impressive R&D facility, which feels and sounds like a real factory. Here you have to speak-up to make yourself heard over all the decibels produced by the equipment, while scientists and technicians, wearing labcoats and safety goggles, are carefully monitoring the various processes. This is where smart ideas for the production of commercially viable products from biomass are tested: from laboratory to pilot scale.

Impressive growth

Although the production of biobased products such as bioplastics is only a fraction of the production of petrochemical products, its growth is impressive. Moreover, says Paulien Harmsen, scientist at Food & Biobased Research, developments are proceeding accordingly. Harmsen shows us the section of the hall where the fresh biomass arrives, ranging from crops like roadside (switch)grass, miscanthus and wheat straw to agricultural residual products such as sugar beet pulp and palm oil residues. However, also more exotic biomass sources such as seaweed are examined on valuable components.

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Before biomass becomes valuable, we need to know what is in it
Paulien Harmsen, researcher at Food & Biobased Research

Biomass analysis

We take the stairs and head into one of the laboratories upstairs. “The advanced equipment here is analysing biomass round-the-clock,” Harmsen explains. “Before biomass becomes valuable, we need to know what is in it. We look for valuable components such as specific sugars, cellulose, lignin, proteins and fats. For analysis purposes it’s best to dry or grind the biomass first. This makes it easier to analyse the valuable components.”

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Chemical building blocks

Several doors down is the (bio)chemical laboratory, where biomass is cracked and refined into main fractions. “After the pre-treatment process, we turn it into chemical building blocks which can be used to make an infinite number of products and materials,” explains Jacco van Haveren, programme manager Biobased Chemicals. “Here we mainly develop chemical building blocks based on sugars and lignin via technologies such as fermentation and biocatalysis. We also use catalysts from the petrochemical industry, which is often faster and cheaper.” Van Haveren estimates that 7% of all chemical building blocks are currently biobased. “Examples include paints based on sunflower oil and wallpaper glue from potato starch.”

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Alternative for PET bottles

Scientist Linda Gootjes demonstrates a reactor that is used to convert galactaric acid (from sugar beet pulp) to furandicarboxylic acid (2.5 FDCA). “Sugar beet pulp was seen as a low-value residual stream that could only be used for animal feed and which had a low nutritional value. But it can also be used as alternative for terephthalate used in  PET bottles. Following this route the ‘plant bottle’ of Coca Cola soon can be fully biobased.”

Companies such as Cosun and Avantium are aiming to meet these types of demands from the market, according to Christiaan Bolck, programme manager Biobased Materials: “They ask us for our input in their search to bring value to residual streams or in developing alternative (biobased) building blocks. Here, together with industry, we take the first steps towards commercial production. We can produce components on such a scale that we can use them to make polymers and, later, bioplastic products.”

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Micro-organisms in small tubes

Now it’s time to enter the microbiology lab, where scientist and fermentation expert Jeroen Hugenholtz is demonstrating the possibilities for putting minuscule bacteria to good use. “Here for example, we use micro-organisms to produce a component that protects strawberries from rapid spoiling due to fungi. To do this we cultivate a large number of micro-organisms in small tubes and let them multiply. Then we add them to the fungus and observe what happens: does the fungus grow quickly, slowly or not at all? With this information we can develop a biobased alternative for chemical fungicides.”

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Fibreboard from reed

In the natural fibre lab, further down the hall, Christiaan Bolck shows us a unique piece of particle board (MDF), made from reed. “We are helping Natuurmonumenten {a leading Dutch nature conservation organisation}, Compakboard from the UK and Royal DSM to create a biobased MDF board made of reed harvested from areas that are managed by Natuurmonumenten. To realise a genuine sustainable board material, we are working with DSM to develop also a biobased ‘binder’ without toxic compounds. This way we meet the demand from consumers for 100% biobased products with no toxic binders.”

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Extrusion and compounding allows us to mix the raw materials properly. Moreover, it expands the applicability of the biobased polymers
Christiaan Bolck, programme manager Biobased Materials

Extrusion

A unique characteristic of the Biobased Products Innovation Plant is that the research involves the entire production chain, including the production and testing of prototypes of end products. Bolck shows several extruders, equipment that can make granules from polymers. This is where the step from polymer to product based on starch or poly lactic acid (PLA) is made. “Extrusion and compounding allows us to mix the raw materials properly. Moreover, it expands the applicability of the biobased polymers; for instance by improving their heat resistance or flexibility.” Bolck also shows us a plastic cup, which looks exactly like the polystyrene plastic cups we’ve been using to for decades. “However, this cup smells like caramel when it is set on fire because it’s been made from PLA.”

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Adjusting all aspects

We end our tour at the fermenters, where scientist Truus de Vrije shows us one containing a brown, flaky substance. “Here we convert components from seaweed (processed via biorefinery) into lactic acid using bacteria. Apart from bacteria we may also use fungi, yeasts or micro-algae for bioconversion. The trick is finding the best organism and process settings so that companies can use it profitably. In this facility we can adjust all aspects, such as adding air or nitrogen or making the process anaerobic. We can regulate the acidity (pH) or play with the stirring rate. This way we can discover the optimal conditions for the production of biobased building blocks step by step.”  

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Biobased Products Innovation Plant

The Biobased Products Innovation Plant is a large R&D facility used by Food & Biobased Research scientists to develop innovative processes to convert green raw materials (biomass) into biobased products. Our goal is to accelerate the development of the so-called Biobased Economy. Together with industrial partners, governments and other research institutes, we focus on the development of sustainable and economically viable biobased chemicals, materials, fuels and biomass sources for bio-energy. Have a look at our online brochure at www.wur.nl/bpip

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