Driven by the Flemish Region, in Belgium the bioeconomy has great ambitions. It already boasts a few flagship achievements: for instance in the field of biofuel production, biotechnologies and research.
The strong presence of the chemical industry (the sixth European country by turnover, according to CEFIC, the European Chemical Industry Council, and first in the world on a per capita basis), with large fermentation plants such as AlcoBiofuel and Biowanze, good availability of biomass, an integrated logistic network in one of the most developed areas in the continent, where the ports of Ghent and Antwerp play a strategic role. And there are also excellent public and private research, dedicated clusters and pilot plants enabling industrial scale-up of technologies. These are the main characteristics of Belgium’s bioeconomy, where the Flemish Region plays a pivotal role.
Set aside the coal-based era, today Belgium has identified the use of renewable sources as the flywheel for a new sustainable economic development, although a national strategy for this meta-sector is still lacking.
Flanders drive the Belgian bioeconomy
Belgium’s bioeconomy policies reflect the federal character of the country, but above all the different levels of technological and industrial development peculiar to the two main regions. While in Wallonia the bioeconomy is considered within the wider context of the green economy and a correlated strategy is still lacking, over the last few years, Flanders have taken various initiatives supporting this sector, with a first draft of a dedicated strategy (Bioeconomy in Flanders), presented in 2014 thanks to an interdepartmental work group made up of various ministries and governmental agencies such as VITO (Flemish Institute for Technological Research) and OVAM (Public Waste Agency of Flanders), which collaborated with research institutions, industrial associations and civil society.
The document pinpoints five priority areas to promote the Flemish bioeconomy. The first is about the removal of all regulatory obstacles and about coordination of major legislative measures in the sector. The second underlines the presence of infrastructure, research and innovation as fundamental elements to encourage the development of the bioeconomy. This means also strong focus on training of experts and enhancement of the outcome of research, while avoiding a conflict in the allocation of resources for food, materials and energy. The third is about the efficient use of biomass, with the development of criteria of sustainability and territoriality. The fourth introduces the creation of a market and awareness amongst the public. Lastly, the fifth is interregional and international cooperation to promote technological and knowledge transfer. All this should lead the Region, in the government’s view, to become by 2030 one of the most competitive in Europe as far as the bioeconomy is concerned and amongst the leading ones with regard to research and innovation.
The themes of the circular economy, energy and Industry 4.0 fall within the seven priorities of transition pinpointed by the Flemish government in the Vision 2050. A long-term strategy for Flanders strategic plan. The development of a competitive bioeconomy producing biomass in a sustainable manner and (re-) using waste and residues for food and feeds, materials, products and energy is explicitly included in the Circular Flanders document approved last 24th February.
The starting point is very encouraging, because even today the bioeconomy is a remarkably developed phenomenon in the Flanders. The Region generates 58% of the total Belgian GDP (2013 data: €229.9 billion over a total of 395.3) and 61% of global expenditure on Research and Development (2013 data: €5.8 billion over a total of 9.6 billion). In 2015, the turnover of the chemical sector, plastics and life sciences reached €42 billion, with 59,500 direct jobs and over 100,000 indirect ones, €1.6 billion for Research and Development and 11 billions of gross added value (30% of the total of the industry). The turnover of the agro-food industry is €60 billion, with 145,500 jobs and contributing €8.2 billion to the Flemish gross added value.
The Flanders Biobased Cluster
The Flemish ambition of being one the leading centres for the European bioeconomy dates back to at least 2005, when Ghent Bio-Energy Valley was created in order to meet the government’s needs to produce biofuels in Belgium. Then the Rodenhuize biorefinery cluster in the port of Ghent was also created. It hosts the plant for the production of bioethanol of AlcoBiofuel and is currently one of the leading European sites for the production of bioenergy. The Ghent Region is responsible for 90% of total production of Flemish biofuels.
After starting the production of biofuels, Ghent Bio-Energy Valley extended its field of activity to all domains of the bioeconomy. A change that also led to a transformation of the name first, in 2013, to Ghent Bioeconomy Valley and later, in 2016, to Flanders Bioeconomy Valley. The latter is a hub in biobased innovation in its own right with the University of Ghent, the port, the city itself and the Development Agency East Flanders as partners, bringing together research centres, investors, SMEs and large enterprises. The objective is to promote biobased technological innovation, enabling clustering of the various sectors of the bioeconomy, supplying specific services to its own members and promoting correct information on the new economy using biological sources as raw materials.
Flanders Bioeconomy Valley’s pride and joy is Bio Base Europe, joined by Bio Base Europe Pilot Plant and Bio Base Europe Training Center, a training, exhibition and network centre promoting the development of a sustainable bioeconomy by offering companies specific training and close connections with market demand.
Bio Base Europe Pilot Plant
Located in the Port of Ghent, for the construction of the Bio Base Europe Pilot Plant an existing building has been renovated. It is an open pilot platform, able to host under the same roof the whole value chain, from renewable resources to products. Equipped with machinery for pre-treatment of biomass, fermentation, biocatalysis, green chemistry and downstream processes, the structure consists of three large areas, with laboratories and a space for maintenance. The first pilot area is dedicated to pre-treatment and biocatalysis: here there are several reactors measuring up to 8 cubic metres; the second sector is devoted to industrial biotechnology, with fermentation stations up to 15 cubic metres; the third area contains chemical reactors and extraction machinery up to 5 cubic metres. The various models are extremely flexible and can be connected to make several direct production lines. The plant’s aim is ambitious: to become a reference centre in support of businesses to test made in EU bioproducts. Today, the Bio Base Europe Pilot Plant, operational since 2011, is considered a cutting-edge facility for industrial biotechnology, thanks also to the official acknowledgement by the European Commission. Over the years, thanks to financial support by the Port of Ghent, East Flanders, the Flemish government, the Netherlands and the European Union, €25 million have been invested in the Bio Base Europe pilot plant.
Flanders are also one of Europe’s main markets for biotechnologies. In 2015, the Belgian biotech market capitalised €17 billion, 15% of the European total. 1% of the world’s patents for industrial biotech belongs to Belgium, while biobased economy soared by 28% from 2008 to 2014.
VIB, Institute for Biotechnology employing 1,470 scientists from 60 different nationalities and VITO, the Institute for Technological Research, employing over 750 scientists from 20 different nationalities are excellent cases in point of Flemish research. Also, there are pilot plants to transform research into new products to be marketed: besides the already mentioned BBEPP, in Melle, ILVO built the Food Pilot, Institute for Agricultural and Fisheries Research and Flander’s Food, the platform for the innovation of the food industry, 80% of which is funded by the Flemish government. It is an analysis, application and demonstration centre converting biomass – including new dedicated plants – into food and non-food products.
Biorizon is the result of a collaboration with the Netherlands in the field of research. Such structure is a shared research centre focussing on technological development for the production of bulk aromatic biobased (BTX) and biobased aromatics for high-performance products, chemicals and coatings.
Biorizon, using the open innovation methodology, aims at pre-empting the growing lack of aromatics by the petrochemical industry and cherishes the ambition to make the Belgian chemical industry greener. VITO, Dutch research centres TNO and ECN (Energy Research Center of the Netherlands) and the incubator Green Chemistry Campus located in the Belgian site for innovative plastics of Sabic, the chemical colossus with its headquarters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, founded Biorizon.
Transnational collaboration is at the core of the Flemish activity with regard to the bioeconomy. After all, Flanders, Holland and Rhineland represent Europe’s major chemical clusters. This is why some of the bioeconomy players of the Netherlands, of the Flanders and the Region of North Rhine-Westphalia founded in 2014 BIG-Cluster, a mega-cluster aiming at directing the initiatives on the current and future bioeconomy with three leaders: FISCH (Flanders Innovation Hub for Sustainable Chemistry) for Flanders, Clib2021, the Cluster for industrial biotechnologies for North Rhine-Westphalia and the foundation BE-Basic for the Netherlands. Thanks to its excellent position in the four pillars of competitiveness – institutions, infrastructure, macroeconomy and education – the mega-cluster, also known as Antwerp, Rotterdam-Rhine-Ruhr (ARRR) has been an authority in the field of industrial innovation in the sector of chemistry for decades and is currently aiming at maintaining the levels of economic and employment growth thanks to a reconversion based on the use of renewable sources.
The Solvay group confirms the huge interest and commitment of Belgian chemistry in the field of the bioeconomy. Indeed, it is currently one of the most important players in the field of chemistry from renewable raw materials. The company has reported a net income of €10.9 billion since 2016 and is currently aiming for a sustainable chemical model to tackle global environmental challenges. It is already boasting a portfolio featuring several biobased products, in the form of polymers and materials, surfactants, solvents, monomers and aroma chemicals.
“We are innovating in order to create eco-efficient products and processes thanks to our experience in organic chemistry, in catalysis and biotechnologies,” declared Sergio Mastroianni, Initiative Leader of Solvay Research and Innovation, last April during the event Plant Based Summit held in Lille (France). “Our researchers all over the world – he claimed – concentrate on the development of products with unprecedented functionalities from renewable raw materials, plants in particular.”
“We strive to exploit specific characteristics of bioresources, from which we create new uses for our customers with best cost-effectiveness, while reducing environmental footprint of their products,” highlighted François Monnet (Solvay’s renewable Chemistry director) during the same event.
Next to huge Solvay there are also smaller companies such as Synvina, the result of a joint venture between Dutch Avantium and German chemical group BASF. The new company, with its headquarter in Amsterdam, will base in Antwerp, in a former BASF plant, its plant for the production of 50 thousand tonnes per year of furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA) from renewable sources. FDCA is an essential chemical intermediate for the production of polyethylene furanoate (PEF) and therefore bioplastics.
Wallonia is not sitting on the sidelines
While Flanders lead Belgian bioeconomy, Wallonia is not sitting on the sidelines. In the southernmost region of Belgium, in Wenze, is the most important national plant for the production of bioethanol owned by BioWanze, a Crop Energies AG subsidiary, which in turn belongs to German Südzucker.
In 2013, CoqVert initiative was launched, a public-private partnership between cluster Green-Win, the company for attracting investments in Wallonia AWEX-Foreign Investment and Val Biom, the association for the promotion of non-food biomass in collaboration with ESSENSCIA Wallonia, chemical industry and life sciences federation.
With this project, partners intended to give a good push to the development of a strong and competitive bioeconomy in Wallonia, by promoting new projects in a sector considered vital such as that of green chemistry. Specifically, the CoqVert initiative aims at promoting the use of biomass from non-food resources, such as by-products, residues and waste. This is why second-hand biorefineries are at the core of a development plan in the sector in the long term. Not only that: amongst the various measures taken there is also support to research and investment and training projects.
“The bioeconomy – CoqVert partners claim – must be part and parcel of Wallonia’s industrial policy, given the large availability of non-food biomass, internationally-relevant scientific competences in the field of agriculture, forestry, chemistry (green) and materials.”
The potential to launch innovative and ambitious research projects supporting the bioeconomy exists within the broader supporting framework of the green economy. In 2015, the Walloon Government launched Plan Marshall 4.0, a five-year plan with a €2.9 billion budget pinpointing five priority development areas including Research and Innovation and Energy and the Circular Economy.
“A ‘green’ strategy – complain Wallonia’s supporters of the bioeconomy – is underway in the neighbouring regions: Flanders, the Netherlands and France adopted a centralised strategy supporting the bioeconomy.” Wallonia does not intend to lag behind.
Vision 2050. A long-termstrategy for Flanders, www.vlaanderen.be/int/europese-unie/en/news/vision-2050-long-term-strategy-flanders
Bio Base Europe Pilot Plant, www.bbeu.org
Interview with Ludo Diels, Project Leader at VITO
by M. B.
“Flanders has the chemical industry. Wallonia has a biomass potential and also some interesting end-users. So, in fact there is a good fit.” Ludo Diels, project leader at VITO, a leading European independent research and technology organisation in the areas of cleantech and sustainable development headquartered in Mol (Antwerp), talks to Renewable Matter.
Mr Diels, what are the strengths and weaknesses of the Belgian bioeconomy?
“The major strength is the link with the chemical industry. Belgium is together with the Netherlands and Germany the biggest chemical cluster of Europe and among the four biggest clusters in the world. Chemical industry is the largest industry for Flanders and makes it a strong economy. The second industry is food industry (less turnover, more jobs) and has in this also a strong link to bio-economy. Further, Belgium has a strong network of logistics supporting this ARRR region (Antwerp-Rotterdam-Rhine-Ruhr) and a strong innovation climate based on universities, RTOs, pilot plants incubators etc. Flanders was also the cradle of plant biotechnology and is the only place in Europe where still industrial plant biotechnology activities take place (most moved to the US). It is the centre of circular economy and waste management and has several companies working on biomass avant la lettre mostly devoted to high added value chemicals (such as Omnichem-Ajinomoto, Oleon, TFC, Lawter). The major weakness is that Belgium is limited in biomass, although at the moment several side streams are looked at and will have potential. Belgium has not very much real full biorefineries. A real biorefinery is Biowanze. Belgium has also some small bioethanol and biodiesel plants.”
Could you explain to us what role VITO plays in the Belgian bioeconomy?
“Belgium has all the big chemical companies (Covestro, BASF, Evonik, Ineos, Borealis, Lanxess etc.) dealing in one or another way with bioeconomy and Belgium has also the specific companies that I mentioned before. The country has also many high added value chemicals companies (EOC-group, Kaneka, Sumitomo, Allnex). Further, many companies at the end user side of the value chain, such as Derbigum, Beaulieu, Unilin.”
Could you explain us what’s the role of VITO in the Belgian bioeconomy?
“VITO plays first a role in bringing academic research to application for the industry (general approach). It focuses on sustainable chemistry by moving to renewable feedstock (biomass and CO2) and implementing process intensification. VITO brakes a lance for the fact that introducing bioeconomy needs more efficient technologies to get a breakthrough. The answer to this is Process Intensification (especially by integrating conversion and separation technologies). We play a strategic role in setting up and managing a sustainable chemistry in Flanders (strong role in the network Catalisti) and, by doing so, VITO forces the breakthrough of bioeconomy. We are active in interregional activities (Biorizon, BIG-Cluster, Vanguard) and European (active role in PPPs BBI and SPIRE) as well as world strategies (Bioeconomy strategy between Europe and India).”
Belgium has not yet a national strategy. Wallonia also does not have its own strategy, while Flanders have a strategy and, above all, important players in the industry. How important would it be to have a national strategy and how is the Belgian bioeconomy influenced by the gap between Flanders and Wallonia?
“Flanders has the chemical industry. Wallonia has a biomass potential and also some interesting end-users. So, in fact there is a good fit. This is already mentioned in the Flanders strategy and also Wallonia recognizes this win-win situation. Maybe we do not need a Belgian strategy, but at least an integrated approach. Can be done once Wallonia has its strategy. Only when two official strategies exist, the link between the two can be made as well in an official way.”
How important is the relation with the Netherlands for the Belgian bioeconomy?
“Flanders has a strong collaboration with the Netherlands via ARRR and moving to a smart specialisation in bioeconomy. Nice example is Biorizon, the shared research centre on biobased aromatics. Also the BioBase Europe Pilot Plant (Gent) linked to the Training Centre (Terneuzen).”
And what is the perception of the bioeconomy by Belgian public opinion?
“I believe that the perception is not very different from other countries. The public opinion is not very well aware of the potential for their economy and welfare. In many cases chemical industry is still seen as dirty and economic benefits are underestimated, also by the political world. Further, discussions as ‘food versus fuel,’ ‘genetic manipulation,’ land use etc. need a review and a new public and political debate. The fear for small disadvantages forces the public opinion to the business as usual petro-based economy.”
What measures are present in Belgium to support the development of the bioeconomy? And what do you think it should be implemented in the short term?
“In Flanders the Bioeconomy is now part of the circular economy strategy. Further, Sustainable chemistry is one of the five spearhead clusters of the Flemish government for the development of future industrial activities. In order to fully exploit this, the interaction between sectors needs to be improved (chemistry and materials, chemistry and food). It’s the same regarding the interaction at the national (collaboration with Wallonia) and international level (collaboration with the Netherlands and Germany and further several other regions) and this all in function of a smart specialisation.”
Interview with Monika Sormann, Department of Economy, Science and Innovation (EWI) of the Flemish Government
by M. B.
“First of all we cannot speak of a Belgian bioeconomy. In Belgium the different authorities – federal, regional and community governments – have a high degree of autonomy, which is in most cases exclusive for either of them. For example the competency for innovation policy, for agriculture, for research is quite exclusive for the regions or communities.” To say it – in this exclusive interview with Renewable Matter – is Monika Sormann, policy advisor for the bioeconomy in the department Economy, Science and Innovation (EWI) of the Flemish Government. With her we talk about bioeconomy in Belgium and Europe.
“There is certainly a need – she states – for a regulatory framework to promote the use of renewable feedstocks in materials and the promotion of biobased products following on from this.”
In your opinion, what are the strengths of the Belgian bioeconomy?
“First of all we cannot speak of a Belgian bioeconomy. In Belgium the different authorities – federal, regional and community governments – have a high degree of autonomy, which is in most cases exclusive for either of them. For example the competency for innovation policy, for agriculture, for research is almost exclusive for the regions or communities. The Flanders’ government is responsible for both the regional and the community competencies. When a Belgian point of view is required at European and international level, Belgian authorities make use of a well-developed deliberation system for consensus. Main strengths for the bioeconomy in Flanders have been determined in the KETs Industrial Biotechnology Study and a study commissioned by the Flemish government in 2012 and 2016 about the biobased industry in Flanders. Main strengths are the excellent research in biobased economy sectors at universities and research institutes such as VIB with a plant biotech and yeast group, VITO in energy and materials research. In addition there are dedicated research centers for the textiles and plastics sector, important users of biobased bulk polymers and fine chemicals. Flanders can count on strong industry sectors such as chemistry, agri-food, textiles, pulp & paper; the logistics through three sea ports, a dense network of roads, railways and inland water ways, and good networking: Flanders is located centrally between France, the Netherlands and Germany, three regions strong in the biobased economy; the availability of resources through a very efficient agri-food sector, a high level of selective waste collection and use; the Bio-Base Europe Pilot Plant, the Flanders Biobased Valley, the platform CINBIOS (for industrial biotechnology and biobased economy, editor’s note), and a cluster for Sustainable Chemistry. A new Cluster Policy to strengthen Smart Specialisation in Flanders resulted in spearhead clusters such as bioeconomy related CATALISTI (sustainable chemistry) and Flanders’ Food. We have also a horizontal policy working group on bioeconomy, a bioeconomy strategy and action plan for Flanders (2013); a circular economy strategy in 2016 includes circular deals in public procurement actions to raise consumer awareness and to develop new value chains using waste as resource in view of reducing CO2 footprint.”
And the weaknesses?
“The main weaknesses are the low political visibility of the bioeconomy in Flanders, the fact that R&I funding is mainly generic and open for all sectors; and that the available financing to valorise research outcomes through pilot or demonstration activities (for the higher TRL’s) is not sufficient to boost this emerging market. Furthermore, there is a need for a level playing field for biofuels vs materials and chemicals, and for biofuels vs oil-based fuels, at regional and European level.”
What’s the role of the Biobase Europe Pilot Plant (BBEPP) in the Belgian bioeconomy?
“The BBEPP has been established with the aim to bridge the gap between research and commercialization of biobased products. Main assets are its independence and open access status. It has established partnerships with many leading companies and research institutes in Flanders and the whole of Europe. Economically, the Pilot Plant realizes an annual turnover of about €5 million and counts around 50 employees. BBEPP creates indirect employment and extra turnover through its activities. Started with ERDF funding in 2009 it has used the public investment as a leverage to trigger activity and gain revenues from private investment and EU funded projects. It successfully supported development of commercialisation of new biobased processes.”
In particular could you tell us what role the pilot plant plays in boosting the bioeconomy and attracting foreign investments?
“Implementation of biobased innovations is disruptive for current value chains, with high technological, operational and market risks. Open access pilot facilities like BBEPP help to reduce substantially the technological risks for the innovator, increasing the technology readiness levels without the innovator having to spend millions of euros. The work done at pilot facilities contributes to build the dataset needed to convince management, investors or funding agencies to enable next steps. BBEPP helps innovators to find the right partners to complete their value chain or assists to identify experts to support the entrepreneurs with non-technological issues like regulation, IPR, LCA, business plan development, etc.”
The port of Ghent and the port of Antwerp are two of the most relevant players of the Belgian bioeconomy. How strategic is the logistics system to favour the development of the biobased economy?
“Both harbours play an important role in their own way. Access to shipping of goods via water both from the sea and further to Europe via canals and rivers and a well-developed road and train traffic infrastructure are crucial. The port of Antwerp houses one of the largest petrochemicals clusters in the world. The chemical industry is one of the most important economic sectors in Flanders and Belgium and plays an important role in many biobased value chains. Moreover, the sector is eager to use more renewable feedstock or intermediates in their processes. Antwerp has an enormous capacity for containers and about 300 km of pipelines, some of which can also be used for biobased products. The chemical industry is aiming to become more sustainable and international collaboration with the Netherlands and North Rhine Westphalia plays an important role (Big-Cluster, Vanguard initiative etc). Recently a joint venture between BASF and Avantium was set up for the production and marketing of the biobased polymer FDCA. The BBEPP is located in the harbour of Ghent as well as one of the largest integrated biofuel production sites in Europe, the Rodenhuizedok biorefinery cluster, established as a public-private partnership in 2005. Ghent has chosen to dedicate a large areal for companies that want to invest in the bioeconomy. Biomass is delivered and stored in large quantities for sugar based developments. A couple of month ago, Arcelor Mittal committed itself to invest in the conversion of C1 gases to biofuels and maybe other chemical products together with LanzaTech.”
How important would it be to have a national strategy and how is the Belgian bioeconomy influenced by the gap between Flanders and Wallonia?
“In Wallonia Greenwin (the Walloon Innovation Cluster, editor’s note) plays an important role for establishing the bioeconomy. The fact that there is no national strategy is not necessarily a barrier for collaboration between the regions. Because there are no Belgian policy measures for research and innovation projects where collaboration of partners from Flanders and Wallonia is obliged, researchers are used to collaborate in projects via European funding programs.”
What measures are present in Belgium to support the development of the bioeconomy? And what do you think should be implemented in the short term? Both in Belgium and in the European Union.
“Policy measures in Flanders are the new cluster policy, two spearhead clusters related to the bioeconomy are Catalisti (sustainable chemistry) and Flanders’ Food, and the circular economy based on previous material managements program now also focused on biomass, water and energy. Most R&I support and financing measures are generic, but there is support for cooperation in EU programs e.g. INTERREG, ERAnet, JPI, Vanguard Initiative with a pilot program on bioeconomy. Many measures such as or sustainable energy are designed at EU level and implicated in the member states and regions. In EU policy there should be closer synergies between bioeconomy (and its strategy) and other EU policies such as waste regulation, CAP, circular economy. We need more effective EU funding for investment in infrastructure at higher TRL’s to bridge the innovation gap and cross country support for projects in pilot plants should be supported. There is certainly a need for a regulatory framework to promote the use of renewable feedstocks in materials and the promotion of biobased products following on from this. In this way biobased products could be supported just like bioenergy, for example, on the basis of their greenhouse gas emission benefits, or could be included in a ‘sustainable public procurement’ program, complementary equity and debt financing in bio-innovation and pilot investments would trigger market opportunities.”