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BioBTX builds working time machine

What took Mother Earth millions of years to do, can be done in just minutes at Bio BTX in Groningen. This startup, in a unique pilot plant, makes biobased aromatics – indispensable raw materials in the chemical industry. They have the same properties as aromatics from petroleum –  a big step towards greening the chemical industry.

Niels Schenk, Technical Director BioBTX

Sparkling and shining, this unique machine has been running in Groningen since the summer. At one end, raw materials are entered that would otherwise be used much less efficiently. Currently this is glycerine, a waste product from the production of biodiesel. Coming out at the other end are crude benzene, toluene and xylene (BTX), valuable building blocks, so-called aromatics, for the chemical industry. In conventional industry, they are made from petroleum. It is a wonderful process. Technicians know that it works, yet much fundamental research is still needed to understand exactly what is happening. Just as the Earth made oil from plant and animal remains over millions of years, the pilot plant is producing the same from glycerine at a far more accelerated pace. This is new and the way in which it is happening in Groningen is unique. The chemical industry is in the middle of a ‘greening process’. Dependence on fossil fuels needs to be considerably reduced. And the Groningen-based BioBTX has part of the answer. “We are constantly trying to fit the pieces of the puzzle together,” explains Niels Schenk, the technical director of BioBTX. “Fundamental questions about the chemical reactions that occur, but also technological issues. How could it be better, even more efficient?” This puzzling happens partly at the University of Groningen, where a large group of students, PhD students and researchers are working on the underlying technological and chemical principles in collaboration with BioBTX.

Testing plant located at ZAP

The pilot plant’s location is unique. It is situated on the grounds of Zernike Campus, amidst students from the University of Groningen and the Hanze University of Applied Sciences. The building in which the pilot plant is located is called ZAP, short for Zernike Advanced Processing. It is intended to close the gap between (green) technology on a lab-scale and the industry. For pilot plants, in effect.   BTX essential in the chemical industry The world is keeping a close eye. And that’s no surprise, thinks Schenk. “Petroleum constituents, olefins and aromatics are essential building blocks in the chemical industry. For making plastics such as PET packaging or wind turbine blades, for example. Olefins and methanol can already be produced via alternative routes, but that wasn’t yet the case for aromatics, even though they are often the most important building blocks for making high-quality polymers.” BioBTX recently sealed a deal with the Japanese chemical giant Teijin Aramid with the aim of producing an extremely strong fibre that is made entirely out of biobased raw materials. Aromatics are essential in this. The agreement shows what the people behind BioBTX have known for a while: there is plenty of demand in the market for green, chemical raw materials. And so, it’s clear that the pilot plant is a step towards a large, industrial installation. “I think that can be pretty soon. The results are there.”   Knowledge translated into practice It’s only nine years ago that the research question on organic aromatics came to the consultancy bureau KNN. The starting point: biomass is burned up everywhere in the world to produce heat or energy. Wood waste is even shipped around the world. It’s not very sustainable. So: can’t we get something more high-grade out of it? Preferably the much used BTX. Niels Schenk who was then employed by KNN and André Heeres from the organic laboratory Syncom took up this question. They were reinforced by the group of Erik Heeres, professor of Chemical Technology at the University of Groningen.  In 2012, the province of Groningen granted a subsidy to begin the research. The first experiments were done and the team found that it was indeed possible.   Unique facilities in Groningen The start of 2017 saw a giant step in the development. Thanks to a capital injection from the university-affiliated Carduso Capital fund, construction on the pilot plant could begin. And it’s doing what it should do. Schenk: “It’s a completely different scale than experimenting in the laboratory. You see different things, you can make more adjustments, also very small ones. Such a pilot plant is needed to optimise the process. We now achieve a high efficiency. Almost all the carbon in the raw material can be used effectively.”   Literally amongst the students Niels Schenk: “This place is unique, a godsend. In Groningen, the university, HBO (School for Higher Professional Education) and MBO (intermediate vocational education) work together. You don’t see that anywhere else, I think. For us it’s ideal. We have close ties with educational institutions, we are literally amongst them. We are, as it were, part of it.” And thus the research is constantly ongoing. “The next step is that we place a module at our pilot plant enabling us to also enter other residual flows. That should certainly be possible. We start with non-recyclable plastic as the raw material for BTX. Then it’s still reusable, it’s come full circle. And in this way, we can further contribute to greening the chemical industry. Because that’s what we want.”