People and Leaders

Will Flanders Play a Leading Role in Bio-aromatics?

Exclusive Interview on the Future of Bioaromatics with Ludo Diels, Research Leader at VITO.

Ludo Diels started working for VITO, the Flemish (BE) Institute for Technological Research, in 1991. VITO was responsible for soil and groundwater remediation at that time; it was a reactive business model driven by regulation.

Ludo received the task to transform and modernise VITO and to make it future-proof and more relevant for the industry. VITO became a platform for sustainable chemistry, grew from 225 to 800 people and became an ecological institute and a link between the Belgian academical world and industry.

Ludo started preaching about bio-aromatics 7 years ago. 40 % of all chemicals are made from benzene or related molecules such as toluene and xylene, and called aromatics. Ludo believes that if we can produce bio-aromatics from renewable biomass, we’ll make a giant leap towards reduction of carbon footprint.

Bio-aromatics have another advantage: they perform better than fossil aromatics; due to the present functionalities of bio-based aromatics there’s a great potential to develop molecules that are safer and perform better than existing petro-based molecules.

The Bio-aromatics agenda switched to second gear five years ago with the establishment of Biorizon, a shared research centre between VITO and TNO. Biorizon focusses on technology development for the production of renewable bulk aromatics (BTX) and functionalized bio-based aromatics for performance materials, chemicals & coatings.

VITO went a step further and decided to build a mobile pilot plant to produce bio-aromatics. The plant will be ready in two years time and will be transportable. The daily production capacity will be around 250 kg bio-aromatics. This will be the largest of its kind and will cost €4.3 mln. This plant is needed to provide samples (1 to 100 kg scale) to the many companies that are interested to further develop new polymers and new materials.

VITO’s next step will be to create a demonstration plant that will cost at least a tenfold of it and will be managed by industry and investors.

Flanders and the Netherlands are working together to bring bio-aromatics to the market in collaboration with the local industrial partners and with international partners. Netherlands took the decision to make bio-aromatics from sugar while Flanders under advise of Ludo went for Lignin.

Sugar price are defined by the international market while the price of lignin is not yet defined. The pathway for creating bio-aromatics from lignin is longer but gives more innovative options. However, if we start from lignocellulose, we get sugars as well as lignin. Should VITO manage to develop a patentable and industrially applicable technology, then VITO will set a landmark and milestone in the chemical industry.

Ludo strongly believe that the use of bio-based carbon from lignocellulose (be it cellulose, lignin or its derivatives as sugar and aromatics) in construction materials is a big challenge for the chemical industry and materials industry to create a carbon storage. This means that we could take carbon from the atmosphere via the plant material and store it for a long period (e.g. more than 50 years). In this way we contribute to the climate change mitigation by negative emissions. This will be the only way from 2050 on to keep the temperature rise below + 2 °C.

Ludo believes that Flanders could become a leader and pioneer in sustainable chemistry. Flanders has the highest chemical production per capita according to Ludo and Antwerp is part of the mega chemical cluster with Rotterdam and Rhine-Ruhr.

The main question is Will Flanders be fast enough and invest in these new markets and place their industry at the forefront of this innovative business?

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