Annita Westenbroek: biorefinery is at the heart of the biobased economy

Annita Westenbroek, director of the Dutch Biorefinery Cluster, a partnership of agricultural and biobased industrial companies, holds the opinion that the Netherlands can easily produce enough biomass to feed the entire chemical sector. But not to feed the entire energy sector.

‘The Netherlands’ excellent agricultural sector produces many valuable side streams that can deliver interesting products through biorefinery processes. Sugars for chemicals, proteins for food and feed, and chemical building blocks for biopolymers. Preferably not for energy purposes. Products from biorefinery processes are too valuable to be used for energy production, surely in the Netherlands. That also holds for fibres. They can be used in the production of paper and cardboard. Natural fibres are used in the automotive industry too, for reinforcement of polymers. As a consequence, fibres too are too valuable to incinerate. I estimate that Dutch agriculture is of such a superior quality that the great majority of its products should be used for higher-end knowledge-intensive products.’

Value pyramid
Annita Westenbroek (40) is the (unofficial) spokesperson for biorefinery in the Netherlands. When she graduated in chemical technology, she did not apply for jobs in chemistry but devoted herself to biorefinery of agricultural products according to the value pyramid. At first with the research centre for paper and board, now as the director of the Dutch Biorefinery Cluster (DBC). And as the chairperson of many committees and working groups on this subject.

The value pyramid shows which components in biomass carry the highest price in the market. In the top of the pyramid, we find scare materials like pharmaceutical products, followed by more abundant food and feed, and feedstock for chemical processes respectively. At the bottom of the pyramid we find fuels. But as a result of subsidies by European governments, and the European (bio)fuel directive, the pyramid is turned upside down. Policy favours energy from biomass, contrary to common economic sense.

In some cases biorefinery technology is not yet developed well enough to produce the right compounds; chemistry and agriculture do not cooperate well enough to know each other’s needs and strengths. But they share the intention to increase continually the value of the crop. Waste water, for instance, produces valuable substances for other companies and sectors. Waste water and agricultural waste evolve into side streams valuable for industry, instead of an environmental problem.

Income to the farmer
The paper and pulp industries, from their centuries of experience with green resources, were among the first to acknowledge the need for a reorientation. Wood was going to be scarce because the energy sector turned to wood in order to reduce its carbon footprint. An important reason for agriculture to join the paper and pulp industries in their search was the imminent loss of European subsidies, coupled with a need to close production chains, shift to a more ecologic production model, and earn a better income to the famer. Farmers must both keep up food production and earn their incomes. The option of valorisation of side streams from agriculture came at the right moment. Just like, one hundred years ago, farmers in the Northern part of the Netherlands could sell their wheat straw to cardboard factories for an extra income. An interesting recent example is grass refinery, at first to produce fibres and proteins, followed by a whole array of other useful products. And there is a lot of grass in the Netherlands!

Fruitful consultation process
Annita indicates that the biorefinery business community goes at great lengths to develop the new valorisation chains. The Dutch Biorefinery Cluster is at the heart of this venture; officially from 2008 onwards, but in reality some years longer. Participants like Cosun (sugar) and AVEBE (potato starch), sectorial organizations like those representing the paper and pulp industries, agriculture and horticulture, among them overseeing three quarters of Dutch biomass production, were active in this field for some time already. If forestry joins in, almost all biomass production in the Netherlands will be under the auspices of one of the DBC members. This will allow for a fruitful consultation process on the preferred use of green resources, the development of the best technologies, and the cooperation between the partners that have a stake. Also, minerals recovery will have to be discussed – minerals recycling to the land is an important reason why producers of arable crops participate in DBC.

Learning to understand each other
Bonds between DBC and the chemical industry have been strengthened. ‘It took some time before talks became successful,’ Annita says. ‘Chemical and agro-food companies did not speak the same language, and did not know which processes their counterparts used to valorise certain waste streams; processes and waste streams which often appeared to be useful to other industries. Different sectors also make different choices in valorisation of biomass. Utilities, for instance, prefer cultivation and use of fast-growing crops. They are subsidized and hence can command almost limitless resources to see their plans through. That is a threat to mutual agreement because this effectively blocks production of valuable materials and chemicals from the same resources.’

Chemicals and materials industries are as yet not subsidized for their efforts in the biobased economy, and hence there is no level playing field. Nevertheless, Annita holds the opinion that talks about biomass use will generate technical and economic advantages to all participants to such an extent, that joint processing of biomass in the Netherlands will prove to be a success. Nevertheless it will take some time for Dutch industry to become completely bio, make good use of all biomass feedstock, and turn Dutch biorefinery into a smoothly operating team.


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