Bioclear: we concentrate on the niche of the biological solution

Groningen based Bioclear bacterially purifies soil and water pollution. ‘Most bacteria we find ourselves, in nature’, says Sytse Keuning, founder and manager of the company, started in 1988 as a spin-off of Groningen University. ‘The cleanup of most polluted soils is done by bacteria which are present from the outset. Nowadays, we would not excavate contaminated soil any more from underneath a residential area, as we did in the seventies. Just think about it: 95% of all biodiversity is in the soil, and we know just a tiny bit of it.’ But Bioclear is active in more areas than cleanup: ‘If bacteria can decompose, then they might synthesize as well.’

The biological solution
Sytse Keuning became an entrepreneur because he was enthused by a professor who saw industrial opportunities. University supported him for a year, and subsequently university took a share in Bioclear for five years. It was the first time this university ventured capital. Now, Bioclear employs a workforce of 30; 20% of turnover is dedicated to innovation. Whereas the mean value for SME’s is 2.5%.

‘When we started,’ Sytse says, ‘everybody thought that a biological cleanup of contaminated soils was completely impossible. But three quarters of all problems can be solved in the biological way, reducing costs to one half or one third when compared to excavation, transport, and soil cleanup at an external site. That will surely make a difference for the roughly half a million contaminated sites in the Netherlands. We overcame two suppositions, being that our processes would not work at a 10-12 degree Celsius soil temperature, and that we would not succeed at the cleanup of high concentrations. We proved both suppositions to be wrong. Bacteria abound in the soil, and we have hardly started to know them.’

From decomposition to synthesis
‘But if those yet unknown bacteria can decompose so well, they might also be able to synthesize,’ Sytse Keuning says. ‘That is the second branch to our company. For example, we took up an interest in seaweed. We might be able to harvest half a million tons a year. We might ferment them in a digester, but a much nicer way of treating them would be prior extraction of chemicals: platform chemicals like fatty acids, a feedstock for biobased plastics.’

For that new phase of the company, Bioclear took the initiative for some new companies and joint projects. Together with Dutch Biorefinery Cluster, development agency NOM, and Groningen province, they started the umbrella project BioCab. Sytse: ‘We investigate urban waste water treatment as if it were a factory producing chemical feedstock, or an energy supplier. Within three years, we expect to have sound business cases for all these projects.’

Fighting fouling organisms
Meanwhile, Bioclear also develops a third branch: safety and process control. ‘There is a considerable downside to biological processes,’ says Sytse. ‘As more processes tend to be biobased, unwanted organisms come to the stage. These produce diseases, stench, fouling, and biocorrosion. We will have to counteract those effects.’

‘We concentrate on the niche of the biological solution’, Sytse says. ‘Now the time is ripe for a thorough investigation in various production chains of our own role, of research institutions which deliver the knowledge we need, and finally, of the right partners in these many innovative projects.’

Courtesy NOM, development agency for the Dutch Northern provinces

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