It seems too good to be true. A company that does not emit CO2, but instead uses it as a raw material for the production of biodegradable plastics, cosmetics and as a semi-finished product for the chemical industry. Yet Photanol has shown that it can be done. To provide real proof, the originally Amsterdam-based company recently opened a demo plant in Delfzijl.
'We have outgrown the laboratory in Amsterdam,' says Veronique de Bruijn. 'There, the technology has already amply proven itself.' The enthusiasm echoes in every syllable she utters. Photanol's CEO is noticeably proud of the development the company, a spin-off from the University of Amsterdam, has undergone since its founding in 2012. Last September, a promising chapter was added: the opening of a demo plant at the Chemie Park Delfzijl. This marks an important phase for Photanol, Veronique emphasizes. 'We can now demonstrate and demonstrate on a larger scale the technical and economic feasibility of our pioneering technology.'
Indeed, Photanol is performing groundbreaking pioneering work. "We make chemicals and fuels from CO2, making fossil oil redundant," Veronique briefly summarizes the company's activities. Cyanobacteria, better known as blue-green algae, play a central role in that process. The specially cultivated bacteria convert CO2, via photosynthesis, into useful building blocks for chemistry. Into organic acids, to be precise, which can be used as a raw material for the production of biodegradable plastics, cosmetics and as a semi-finished product for the chemical industry.
Photanol offers, in short, an innovative solution to reduce CO2 emissions. A solution that, by producing clean chemicals, can also become very interesting economically. Now the task is to provide the real proof of that in the demo plant. But why choose the site in Delfzijl? 'First of all, because our strategic partner Nouryon, AkzoNobel's split-off chemical branch, is located there,' says Veronique. 'We've been working closely with the company for years and also want to do the further scale-up of Photanol with them. For that reason, our demo plant is located next to Nouryon's plant.'
NOM also played a prominent role in bringing Photanol to the North. At an early stage, for example, Veronique was in contact with Errit Bekkering, Business Development Manager of the NOM. Errit managed to convince her that Delfzijl was actually the ideal location for the demo plant. 'During our talks, it quickly became clear to me that our business case fits in perfectly with the efforts to green the chain at the Chemie Park,' Veronique reflects. 'There are plenty of appealing companies here that are coming together in that area and can therefore join us in the coming years. The whole ecosystem is geared to that. At the same time, there are knowledge institutions in the immediate vicinity that we can collaborate with. It's not for nothing that a lot of innovative sustainable chemistry is establishing itself in Delfzijl.
Not only NOM was enthusiastic. GROEIfonds and Investeringsfonds Groningen (IFG) were also only too happy to see the Amsterdam startup move to the region. And so the two northern funds decided to finance Photanol, making the construction of the demo plant possible. 'Of course we did extensive research beforehand,' says fund manager Jan Martin Timmer of IFG, which is managed by the NOM. 'Is the business case well founded? Is the management team able to deliver? Everything showed that the company is an asset to the Northern Netherlands. As a region, we want to lead in the greening of chemistry. Photanol can give that ambition a significant boost.
Of course, landing such a demo plant in the region they do largely by themselves. We try to facilitate the company as best we can. After all, on many fronts all sorts of things have to be arranged.' Investment Manager Sytze Hellinga of GROEIfonds underlines the stimulating role Photanol can play for the region. 'With this, we show that cleantech innovations are possible within the Groningen ecosystem. But Photanol also provides various types of employment and can make use of the high-quality knowledge of the Hanzehogeschool and the RUG.'
In doing so, we show that cleantech innovations are possible within the Groningen ecosystem.
Investment Manager Sytze Hellinga, GROEIfonds
Veronique already feels completely at home in the North, she says. 'The guidance provided by NOM has been invaluable for this. For example, with the help of their large network, we were put in touch with relevant parties within the municipality and the province and they showed us the way to subsidies. In preparation for coming to Delfzijl, we first conducted a container pilot at Zernike Campus Groningen. At the ZAPinnovation cluster, a test environment for biobased experiments in the
Northern Netherlands, we again tested the process of producing clean chemicals from CO2 and sunlight and tried to improve it together with students and research groups. NOM, IFG and GROEIfonds did a lot of work to make that container pilot possible. So also in terms of embedding in the knowledge institutions, they helped us a lot.'
Back to the demo plant in Delfzijl. What exactly can we expect? 'We want to show that Photanol can really make a difference,' Veronique argues. 'That means we have to prove that the technology can be scaled up, that we have the production process under control and that the quality of the organic acids is always at the desired level. It is an intermediate step towards a commercial plant. We are going to build that commercial plant in phases. One or more elements will be added step by step. How many jobs do we expect to create in Delfzijl? The demo plant will employ about five people in operations. Eventually, on a commercial scale, we expect to grow into a company with between 25 and 50 employees. We face the future with great confidence. Indeed, I am almost certain that Photanol will play a significant role in making chemistry more sustainable.'