For Cosun, the beet is exceptionally suited as a starting point in the bio-based economy. ‘The sugar beet has by far the highest yield in the Netherlands (and elsewhere), and carries the highest income to the farmer. Even algae do not come close.’ Says Gerald van Engelen, general manager Cosun Biobased Products.
Cosun and its daughter Suiker Unie are the major sugar producers in the Netherlands. Production areas are evenly spread among the Northern and Southern parts of the country. ‘Ten years ago, one hectare of Dutch beet had a productivity on average of 10 tons of sugar’ says Van Engelen, ‘now it is 14 and some farmers even have 18 tons. We have developed better crops, and better cultivation methods. Climate change results in a better growth environment. We now have Northern France’s climate, without their water problems.’
‘Although the focus is on high-value products, we started our activities in the biobased economy with sustainable energy production on a large scale. Biofermentation, and processing to pure methane that can be fed directly into the natural gas grid. We are in the middle of that. Fermentation of waste streams is operational in our Brabant factory, the Groningen facility is almost ready, and so is the installation in Northern Germany. With present sugar and energy market prices, fermentation of the whole beet to produce energy is not an option. But we do process waste streams. If the European market regulation for sugar beet might come to an end, the sugar world will change, but even then we expect to have a good business case for biomethane production. Surely if crude oil stays above $ 100 a barrel.’
In the slipstream of green energy
‘The beet as a chemical factory for the production of green chemical building blocks, green chemical specialties and green materials, is on its way. Not necessarily a genetically modified beet. With classical breeding methods, we can also produce a beet that we want.’ Gerald hints at the recent closing down of its European activities by BASF in the field of genetically modified industrial potatoes. ‘That is a setback for Europe, because the rest of the world continues as it did before. By the way, we estimate that green chemistry will develop in the slipstream of green energy. That is the way things went with us, too. Fermentation to methane is the basis of our biorefinery concept. Moreover, even if you could valorise ten per cent of your biomass stream to high-value products, you will have to put the remaining ninety per cent to good use, and energy production is a viable way of doing precisely that. In the course of time, you can isolate a larger fraction of useful and high-value components. For chemical building blocks furanics come to mind, as do new biopolymers like PLA (polylactic acid) from our own feedstock. The Dutch cooperation Dutch Grown Polymers in which our company Suiker Unie participates, develops feedstock, fermentation technology, end products, and applications.’
Finally Gerald van Engelen would like to share his view on the innovative climate for the biobased economy in the Netherlands. ‘Our country has a wonderful starting point, harbouring research-intensive chemical and agricultural sectors, and a top logistical sector, but the national government appears to react mainly to the incumbent order. Non-sustainable cash cows stay in business, and diminish market entry opportunities for newcomers. Government should concentrate on the creation of markets for sustainable products through specific legislation. In Italy, for instance, non-sustainable and non-biodegradable plastic bags have been banned by law. The economy then shifts to other businesses, but no economic activity is lost. It just moves somewhere else. That is the way to enter into a sustainable bio-based economy.’