André Heeres: 'The Northern Netherlands has everything available for a bio-based circular transition.' Ronald Hesse adds: 'And the consumer wants it too. Industry therefore feels the pressure: everything has to be greener. And that includes everything from cleaning to medicine and food.'
Like a well-oiled machine, the duo of André Heeres-Ronald Hesse complement each other. But this metaphor does not fit the topic of discussion. For this conversation is precisely about replacing oil, or fossil raw materials. For we are talking to the duo about Chemport Europe; a collaboration under our noses that aims to force revolutionary innovations in global chemistry. Because this is where raw materials become end products and end products become raw materials again. Circular, in other words. In other words: closing the loop. It all has to become green and sustainable.
Interests of Lego and Coca Cola
André Heeres is lecturer in Biobased Chemistry at the Hanzehogeschool, Ronald Hesse is business developer at the innovation engine Campus Groningen. The former knows everything about chemistry, the latter facilitates and structures things so that business is created from that circular chemistry.
Hesse continued: 'The Northern Netherlands is a European leader in the field of plastics, especially in Emmen. If, like Cure, you manage to arouse the interest of Coca Cola and Lego, you are doing very well.' To which Heeres adds: 'You want to recycle plastics with as little damage to the environment as possible. In that process you always lose some materials, but we can supplement it with new sustainable materials.'
Agriculture provides new raw materials for chemistry
Heeres is referring to raw materials that come from the agro-sector, such as sugar beet. Because the agro-world and chemistry are linked in the Northern Netherlands. Thanks to Chemport Europe and chemical parks in Emmen and Delfzijl. Avantium, for example, makes plastic from sugar. 'We here in the region have a lot of understanding of chemistry on a laboratory scale,' says André Heeres. 'Look at the knowledge institutions, look at what the Feringas(winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, ed.) are producing and have produced.'
The Northern Netherlands has all the ingredients to realize its ambitions. Agriculture supplies new raw materials, there is a strong chemical cluster, Friesland has strengths in the field of circularity, including Omrin, there is a port, there are top knowledge institutions, there is green hydrogen (for energy but also as a raw material), a Life Sciences cooperative in the form of Life Cooperative (for the application of green raw materials in, among other things, drug development) and there is the flywheel Campus Groningen where science and entrepreneurship merge: everything is available within a radius of 100 kilometers.
Better a good neighbor than a distant friend
That infrastructure is not just one of neighbors keeping tabs on each other and chasing each other, it is one that can facilitate the entire process from idea to factory. Because from idea, to research, to fiddling with molecules for the right chemical compound, to the production of a few grams of product, then several dozen kilos of product and finally a (pilot) plant. Look at the trajectories of, for example, Avantium, BioBTX, Photanol and Cure.
That whole process is called the "TRL train. TRL stands for technology readiness levels. Examples: TRL 1 is the basic research phase, TRL 4 is the implementation and testing of the prototype, TRL 9 (highest level) is when the concept is commercially and technically complete, i.e. a product that is ripe for the market.
Chain in northern Netherlands is complete
To this was recently added the Chemport Innovation Campus (CIC). Heeres: "This creates a perfect situation. For three reasons. The first: we can now bring ideas from Ben Feringa, for example, to the market. The second is that we now have a test street where global projects can go specifically to test innovations at TRL 4 level. So TRL 4-level projects can go to Delfzijl. And thirdly, we can train students in the field.'
Broadly speaking, the Northern Netherlands is concerned with three product streams: chemicals, pharmaceuticals and plastics. Heeres: "If there is one region where we can realize all these ambitions, it is the Northern Netherlands. Hydrogen, chemical parks, agriculture, Campus Groningen, it's all there. The culture is also that we get along well, we want to work together.' And Hesse adds, "The chain is complete and we look for each other.
Leaders Avantium, Cure, Photanol and BioBTX
In the world of chemical producers, the Northern Netherlands concept is being watched with interest. Heeres: 'With Avantium, Cure, Photanol and BioBTX we certainly have four frontrunners. One of those four - and preferably all four - must definitely become a world player, because that is what attracts investors. That is why you have to keep a close eye on whether one of these parties needs additional funding in the meantime. It must not be allowed to fail on that score.
Ronald Hesse therefore emphasizes the impact of Chemport Europe: 'It brings solutions that society demands but that are not yet economically complete. And it's about a long haul, because we may not see the products on the market until 40 years from now that Ben Feringa, for example, has come up with.'