The Ghent facility is part of a project that is both research- and economy-oriented, says Muriel Dewilde, process engineer and business developer. “As a company, we have to be economically viable, but we are also participating in a European research project,” she says. “So, on one hand we are a centre of knowledge and on the other, we are a service provider to companies exploring the implementation of biomass in their processes. As such, we have to be profitable.”
Biomass products can take different forms, says Dewilde, a bio-engineer by training. “We have all kinds of equipment for the processing of bio-based material for different products, like bio-plastics, derived from enzymes, and fuel.”
The first generation of biomass products can be found in crops such as corn and sugar beet. “We are focussing on the second generation, things like fibres,” says Dewilde. “Our Ghent pilot plant enables companies to scale up biomass-based processes that have been successful at laboratory level to an industrial level. We then try to produce a few thousand kilos so the companies can approach their customers with their newly developed concept.”
Eventually, the biomass industry may evolve into an engine for economic growth. That’s why the Port Authority of Ghent has reserved an 80-hectare site at the city’s Kluizen dock to support its ambition to turn Ghent into a major bio product hub.
Dewilde does not want to be drawn into the “food versus fuel” discussion, which reflects a fear that farmers all over the world will be tempted to opt for more lucrative biomass-related crops and abandon food production altogether.
“It’s a question of shades of meaning, really,” she says. “First of all, the new developments are not interested in the ‘nourishing’ parts of the products, but rather in other parts of the plants that used to be disposable. There are also other types of plants that are not fit for consumption, in any case. And all the land available for agriculture has not been used up. There is a lot of potential in the southern countries, for instance.”
The more practice-oriented Ghent plant is supported by the Terneuzen training centre, where companies can send operators and technicians for training programmes for the processing industry and bio-based economy.
The collaboration between Flanders and the Netherlands is part of a wider cross-border initiative known as Euregion Scheldemond, a cooperation scheme between the provinces of East and West Flanders and Zeeland.
Initiators of such regions and collaborations often say that Europe, particularly where regulations are concerned, still needs a change of mindset. Most of the regulations concerning biomass, at both the national and European level, is still quite restrictive. In the broader sense, biomass should be a common name for all organic material and renewable resources of vegetable or animal origin that are suitable for industrial production (non-food) or energy (heating, electricity, engine fuel).
However, the European Council, to give one example, has restricted its own definition to the biodegradable part of products, waste and agricultural residue (including vegetable and animal substances), forestry and related industries, as well as the biodegradable part of industrial and household waste.
“Waste” seems to be the leitmotiv in this definition, whereas biomass can also include other organic material that does not fit this description.
For this reason, Peeters and Verhagen, both ministers of economy and agriculture in their respective regions, have agreed to set up a temporary working group for an update or extension of regulations. Both also want the renewed European Agricultural Policy to pay more attention to the bio-based economy.
Flanders and the Netherlands want to endorse the proposal by the Commission to raise the research budget for agriculture, food and bio economy – part of the Horizon 2020 programme – to €4.5 billion. Both countries have resolved to closely monitor the implementation of the European strategy Innovating for Sustainable Growth: a BioEconomy for Europe and the related action plan.
Together they want to reinforce collaboration in European projects such as Joint Programming, Innovation Partnerships and Knowledge Innovation Centres. Last but not least, Peeters and Verhagen want to map home-produced biomass products in Flanders and the Netherlands so that the exchange between offer and demand can be optimised.