29 June 2020 - A new installation has been put into operation at the Multi Purpose Pilot Plant at Brightlands Chemelot Campus. The budding company Vertoro will process the waste product lignin to produce “green oil” that can be used as a raw material in the production of bioplastics, chemicals and fuel.
Chemelot Institute for Science & Technology (InSciTe) has designed the new installations in the Multi Purpose Pilot Plant to offer research opportunities. At this pilot plant, entrepreneurs and researchers can test chemical processes and innovative materials and produce these in growing quantities.
The skid mounted with a reactor for processing lignin among other products is the latest addition to the Multi Purpose Pilot Plant where InSciTe acts as the facilitator for pioneering entrepreneurs active in raw and other materials from non-fossil sources.
'The pilot plant will help entrepreneurs scale up from the lab to a factory set-up,' says Emiel Staring, Managing Director of InSciTe. 'Once we have proven that it works, a commercial party can take it from there and turn it into a business. The pilot plant is therefore an essential intermediate step in the process that accelerates development to make applications by industry possible. The development of innovative concepts is risky, but we are showing that our approach through a consortium and the collective knowledge, shared costs and shared risk this offers, will enable us to take major steps on the road to a sustainable chemical industry.'
Knowledge institute InSciTe was founded in 2014 with support from Maastricht University, Maastricht UMC+, Eindhoven University of Technology, DSM and the Province of Limburg. More than five years after its start, over 35 partners are now affiliated with InSciTe and the knowledge institute has contributed to the development of seven startups, including Vertoro.
“The next step in the realization of the Chemelot Circular Hub”
“We recently announced our ambitions as a region to become the first Circular Hub in Europe,” says Bert Kip, CEO of Brightlands Chemelot Campus and chairman of the Chemelot Circular Hub regional board. “Chemelot Industrial Park, Brightlands Chemelot Campus, research and educational organizations and the regional and national government are now all working on the major transition to a sustainable, circular economy via this flagship project that serves the national interest. In this sense, these facilities are another crucial step. The research projects at InSciTe and Vertoro’s business development are crucial pieces of the puzzle in this project. We are committed to an economy where fossil fuels are replaced by sustainable raw material flows such as biomass and plastic waste. This starts with the transformation of chemical processes, and innovative chemistry is the solution. As a campus we facilitate this process by offering options for scaling up ideas from the laboratory to the pilot plant phase, for example.”
“This plant is one-of-a-kind worldwide,” adds Wout Ludema, Manager of Operations at Brightlands Chemelot Campus. “Entrepreneurs and universities can scale up new technologies here under the umbrella of a comprehensive permit, housing and broad support.
Vertoro is a company where enterprising researchers from the university have transformed themselves into researching entrepreneurs. The startup focuses on converting lignin to an oil that can be used as a raw material for the production of materials, chemicals and fuels. The company actually arose at the campus as a spin-off of several InSciTe research projects. “Lignin is what remains of wood as a residual product during the production of paper or manufacturing bio-ethanol,” explains Dannie van Osch, Chief Business Officer at Vertoro. “It’s currently a waste product that is being incinerated. After being used to make lignin oil, however, it becomes suitable as a raw material. It is killing two birds with one stone, a win-win for everyone. Burning lignin does result in the release of CO2, but ideally we want to keep it CO2-neutral.”
Vertoro has grown and now has a team of 11 people based at the campus. Over the past three years, it has been conducting successful tests with different types of lignin-rich materials at the labs at the Eindhoven University of Technology and InSciTe at the campus in Geleen. “We’re ready for the next step, proving in practice that lignin can be a good substitute for fossil-fuel based oil. Potential customers want to be able to perform extensive testing. We will be able to produce larger, usable batches faster at the new installation at Brightlands Chemelot Campus, with quantities of up to 150 liters a day. It takes more than a month to achieve this level in the lab. This is an essential intermediate step towards large-scale production.”
And this is exactly what Brightlands Chemelot Campus stands for: helping innovative entrepreneurs test and implement their ideas. “Innovation and the transformation to a circular and sustainable economy starts here,” says Hugo Hendriks, Director Services and COO of the campus. “These facilities allow us to offer entrepreneurs the opportunity to renew their chemical processes in a sustainable way. As a rule, entrepreneurs just starting out don’t have the resources to invest in expensive pilot plants, and everything else that comes with this such as permits, support facilities and the availability of knowledge. This is all available right here at the campus.”
Joost van den Akker, Deputy for Economic Affairs, Education and Sport for the Province of Limburg: “Over five years after its start, more than 35 partners and knowledge institutes are now affiliated with InSciTe and the knowledge organization has contributed to the development of seven startups. This is something we are naturally very proud of. The innovative products strengthen Limburg's ecosystem in this field, and also contribute to the tasks defined by the province in its mission-driven economic policy.”
The Multi Purpose Pilot Plant is suitable for various chemical processes requiring relatively simple interventions. The high-tech installations can handle the thermochemical and chemocatalytical processing of bio-based raw materials in batches of up to one hundred kilograms per day. Specialized employees are on hand to operate the installations. Vertoro is grateful for the opportunity to benefit from the expansion. “Definitely,” says Dannie van Osch. “This new plant offers so many possibilities. In the labs, we discovered that not only can lignin be used to make oil, it is also a suitable raw material for bioplastics. This is particularly the case when combined with other renewable ingredients. We are also studying the possibility to do our own lignin extraction from wood. Thanks to the installations, we can pioneer and test to our heart’s content.”
Vertoro is going to work with Sekab in Sweden on the next step, a demo plant. “It’s possible that a commercial plant will be built in Geleen in the future,” Dannie van Osch concludes. “We also want to license our formulas so that lignin can be processed to make sustainable oil worldwide.”