In 2012, a group of scientists and entrepreneurs in Groningen decided to look for new ways to produce bio-based molecules for the chemical industry. ‘They identified that at that time, there was no real alternative to oil for the production of aromatics like benzene, toluene and xylene’, explains Pieter Imhof, CEO of BioBTX. His company is now able to produce these BTX-compounds from sustainable sources and convert them into building blocks for plastics.
There is a strong market pull for sustainable plastics, as most plastics are still made from oil. For examples, three years ago, Coca Cola introduced ‘plant bottles’, PET bottles made from at least 30% biomass. Even so, there is still a strong demand for alternative, sustainable routes for plastics building blocks which do not compete with food.
Two-step catalytic pyrolysis process
Pyrolysis technology is often used to convert biomass and waste into oil. However, this produces a mixture of ill-defined, unstable hydrocarbons, which are not easily applicable in industry. The original process was improved by scientists of BioBTX and the University of Groningen, who created a two-step catalytic pyrolysis process. The first pyrolysis step turns the organic matter into a gas phases. In the second step, a zeolite catalyst converts the hydrocarbon vapours into BTX aromatics. The end product is chemically identical to petrochemical BTX. This two-step approach gives high feed flexibility and a robust catalytic step.
Together with KNN consultancy firm and Syncom, a company for contract research in organic chemistry, the scientists started BioBTX some six years ago. The company continued to develop the new process. ‘Last years, we worked with the specialty polyester company Cumapol in Emmen to use our building blocks to produce a cosmetics container as a showcase product’, says Imhof. The BTX was produced from glycerol provided by biodiesel producer SunOil, as it is a by-product of biodiesel production.
Pilot production line
Last year, Carduso Capital invested in BioBTX, allowing the company to start building a pilot production line. This will be located in the new Zernike Advanced Processing (ZAP) facility at the Zernike Campus Groningen. ‘We will be able to convert up to ten kilograms of feed per hour in this pilot plant’, says Imhof. This will allow BioBTX to further refine their process and provide potential users of the end products with enough material for testing. ‘We will provide a drop-in product, which can be used in existing production processes.’
The pilot plant initially uses liquids like glycerol as a feed. ‘But the entire set up is modular’, explains Imhof. ‘We can add a feed module to process solids like wood or palm kernel shells. And a recent development is that we can also use plastics as starting material.’ Standard plastic recycling technologies cannot easily handle materials in which different plastic types or composites are used. The BioBTX process converts these mixed plastics into aromatics, thus allowing full circularity of plastics. Imhof: ‘The ideal situation is where we make bio plastics from sustainable sources and eventually recycle them using the same process.’
Working with partners
The pilot plant will also test ways to produce building blocks for different clients. This is done in cooperation with Syncom. ‘We are working closely with partners in the entire chain, from feed material to end product.’ Chemport Europe supported the cooperation with different chemical companies in the region, with local government as well as research and education institutes like the University of Groningen, the Hanzehogeschool and NHL Stenden Universities of Applied Science all withing a 50 kilometer radius.
‘It is a good example of the triple helix approach of Chemport Europe, which combines partners from government, industry and education’, says Imhof. This ecosystem facilitates companies like BioBTX to thrive, also with various facilities like Innolab, ZAP and the projected Chemport Industry Campus which will host larger capacity pilot plants.
Just before opening the pilot plant, Imhof is already thinking about the next step, a demonstration factory which will process tons rather than kilograms. ‘We are eying various locations for this, also in the region like Delfzijl.’
A technology provider
In the end, BioBTX will most likely license its process to others, all over the world. ‘We are not a production company, but a technology provider.’ In the coming months and years, the company will need technicians at all levels of schooling. ‘Thus far, we have been successful filling vacancies, also by providing internships for students. We need staff with skills in chemistry and technology to develop these innovative processes.’