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Saccharide Agenda: a point on the horizon for green chemistry

The Chemport Europe Saccharide Agenda offers a roadmap for the development of a green chemistry production chain in the Northern Netherlands over the next thirty years. There is a huge potential in using sugars instead of fossil oil as a feedstock for the chemical industry. In the Chemport ecosystem, the entire chain from agriculture to organic base chemicals and intermediates to final products is present. However, many steps in this chain are still in development, or in the pilot stage. For a real large scale switch to renewable carbon in chemistry, a joint effort is needed in R&D, upscaling, regulations and financial support. The steps outlined in the Agenda help to align the stakeholders and maintain momentum and enthusiasm among them.

Green alternative feedstock

Theo Smit, consultant at E&E Advies, supervised the process leading to the Saccharide Agenda which was presented on 21 September, and he is one of its authors. ‘There was felt need in the region for a roadmap to support the development of green chemistry in the Northern Netherlands’, he says. This region has a large area of arable land, a thriving chemical industry, much of it clustered in Delfzijl and Emmen, and a strong knowledge base at the University of Groningen and Universities of Applied Science (NHL Stenden, Hanzehogeschool). ‘Added to this are the Eemshaven port as a logistics hub and manufacturing industries which use the chemicals, for example to produce bioplastic bottles.’

Smit notes that much of the current chemical industries in the Chemport Region are fossil based. ‘They need a green alternative feedstock. On the other hand, we have Cosun Beet Company producing sugar, and there are other sources of renewable carbon as well.’ Using sugar as a feedstock could significantly reduce the carbon-footprint of the chemical industry. Currently, some 20 per cent of fossil oil value is used to make chemicals.

Increase the use of green carbon

In policies to reduce greenhouse gas reduction, most attention is given to energy. ‘Both the government support and the regulations are skewed towards green energy, which leaves green chemistry behind.’ The Saccharide Agenda presents the case for a concerted effort to increase the use of green carbon, also with respect to employment. Subsidies are needed to make green carbon competitive at the early stages, while regulations should be adapted to remove roadblocks. For example, when sugars are extracted from biomass, a residue remains. Current regulations make it difficult to use this nutrient-packed residue as a fertilizer in agriculture, so it has to be discarded as waste (which costs money) rather than being used as a valuable resource.

It is a problem that Bram Fetter, Chief Operations Officer at Cosun Beet Company, knows well. ‘We are primarily a producer of green carbon molecules, but do consider the entire production chain in our policies. We may collaborate with parties downstream, create joint ventures or help others to create their business case.’

Stakeholders in the green chemistry chain

Together with Avantium, a pioneer in renewable and sustainable chemistry and chemical company Nouryon, Cosun Beet Company provided valuable input for the Saccharide Agenda. ‘We are all present in the Northern Netherlands, but also elsewhere’, Fetter says. ‘The knowledge base required for green chemistry is being developed on a global scale. Nevertheless, the Chemport region contains a large number of stakeholders in the green chemistry chain.’ The Agenda helps to align them, and gives them a point on the horizon. ‘You won’t get there with only the big companies. We need the creative input of start-ups and other innovative businesses.’

Beet sugar, potato starch, biomass, and…?

The horizon is set at 2050. So what are the steps to get there? Apart from regulations and support, new technologies must be developed. Furthermore, the amount of green carbon produced in the region will not be enough when green chemistry really takes off, explains Smit: ‘We can manage in the first few years, but when demand for green sugar increases, we will eventually have to import biomass.’ Fetter adds: ‘We should also look beyond beet sugar, and for example use sugars from potato starch.’ Biomass waste is also a potential source of green carbon: Avantium is currently testing a pilot bio-refinery in Delfzijl, which produces sugar from woodchips.

On the short term, Fetter would like to see one or two production scale factories in the green chemistry chain operational. ‘You need this first success to build on. I’m seeing a lot of enthusiasm right now, and we really have to hold on to the positive energy that is now powering the green chemistry development in this region.’

Download the Saccharide Agenda

Chemport Europe commissioned the Saccharide Agenda in consultation with regional stakeholders, and safeguards its implementation by the various parties. You can download the full document here.

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