Fossil oil as inspiration for a sustainable future

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4 December 2019

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Praktijkverhalen

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Innovate and become more sustainable, inspired by the traditional oil industry and the cowboys of Silicon Valley. It sounds like an absurd strategy, yet that is exactly what Vertoro is doing. Michael Boot wants to revolutionize the oil industry by processing lignin into an oil that, like traditional crude oil, can be used for many applications in our daily lives. The big difference with other initiatives around biomass is that profitable sectors were looked at to determine the best positioning and rollout of such a platform in the value chain. That draws Vertoro out of its small scale; several times a week Boot gets calls from multinationals and large companies wanting to know more about the oil of the future.

Use what's already there

Michael Boot: "Why are Shell's big refineries not in Nigeria or near other sources, but ship the oil to Rotterdam or Houston to make fuels or semi-finished products from it? Very simply: because it is not profitable. It is only profitable if you transport the crude oil in large volumes from multiple sources to a refining and chemical cluster. If you look at other industries, this is always the case: raw material supply is done from several locations. Processing then takes place at another site, which is better suited to it logistically and technologically.
Only with biomass is that often different, driven by subsidies and mandates to go straight to end products like fuels in the middle of the forest or in a corn field. But that is not necessarily the way to go if you want to create a new industry that can operate independently and profitably. We have developed our lignin oil platform to be able to extract very simply and cheaply in a decentralized way and then process it directly into existing fossil processes. Existing refineries and petrochemical plants are perfectly capable of processing the lignin oil into a wide range of fuels, chemicals, materials.
Plants are supplied with renewable feedstock, which allows them to reduce their carbon footprint without having to make new investments or pay more for their feedstock. So you can make sustainability much faster and more cost-effective than if you had to rebuild everything all over again."

"Existing refineries and petrochemical plants are perfectly capable of processing lignin oil into a wide range of fuels, chemicals and materials."

Michael Boot (co-founder and CEO), Panos Kouris (PhD, candidate CTO), Emiel Hensen (Professor and Dean of the Chemical Engineering and Chemistry Department).

The Android of the oil industry

Back to the product lignin oil. In terms of applications, this platform is very similar to fossil oil as we know it. It can be used to make fuel, but can also serve as the basis for many types of basic chemicals and materials. Vertoro extracts the lignin from various types of non-edible biomass. Think of mushroom compost: the cellulose is 'eaten' from the culture medium when mushrooms are grown, what remains is lignin. But reed and coffee grounds also contain a lot of lignin. Boot: "Like an oil company, we want to provide a liquid platform instead of a single end product. Other companies can then process our platform into patio chairs, clothing or whatever they want. But because lignin oil is so new, we do work intensively on projects with partners to show what is possible. Compare it to the Android platform for smartphones. You need killer apps to show what the platform has to offer and get people excited. If you look at the chemical composition of our bio-oil versus fossil oil, you will see that certain applications are much easier to create with the bio-variety. For example, lignin is a good UV stabilizer and is therefore suitable for use in sunscreen, for example, or in certain types of plastics that are exposed to a lot of sunlight. The obvious place to start is with these types of applications. After all, less processing means less emissions and more profit."

Lignin

Famous is Beloved

Boot also knows the examples where a replacement cleaner product is not adopted without a fight. "Think of ethanol that was supposed to replace gasoline. The engine could tolerate this just fine, but there was a lot of suspicion. Is this really good for the car, wouldn't it be better to stick with the old one? Because that phase of conviction was underestimated, ethanol in gasoline increased only very slowly; it is now only 10%. We realize that you have to take the time to inform the market, to convince it and to make people increasingly familiar with lignin oil. That's why we have these joint projects. This creates a swan-skin effect, you get the media on board and more and more parties dare to join in." A major advantage is the collaboration with DSM, which inspires confidence in the sector. The product is also not too secretive. "We just send interested parties samples, in that respect we are open source; just like Android. See what you can do with it, we just want you to test and experience what the possibilities are. With joint projects we will gradually convince the market that this revolution is really possible.

Commercial scale

A pilot plant has been set up at the Brightlands Chemelot Campus. There is also a pilot plant in the US that Vertoro uses. The tests will be completed in early 2020 and the process is going well. To take the next step to demo scale, building a new factory would take three years plus many millions of euros. Not at all necessary, says Boot. "We now have the funding to have an already existing demo scale biorefinery in Europe adapted so that they can also run our recipe. This could then be ready by the end of 2020 for a fraction of the money and time it would cost to have our own demo plant. We have been funded primarily by venture capital from day one. Of course we do take subsidies where possible. But the approach, in our opinion, should be: make it profitable, then it becomes really sustainable."

"Make it profitable, only then will it be truly sustainable."

The pilot plant at the Brightlands Campus in Geleen that Vertoro uses.

3 innovation tips from Michael Boot for entrepreneurs:

1: Link sustainable to profitable
Don't just be inspired by sustainable companies, look at how highly profitable companies and sectors are organized. Their share has to do with how they organize their value chain and the type of technology they use, which will give you important insights for your own business.

2: Enter into partnerships around new applications
Focus on your core business, but do enter into partnerships with potential buyers in the start-up phase to help realize new applications. This convinces them, and it helps you show the world the potential of your product.

3: Dare to think big
Even if you are still small, dare to think big. Technological innovations in particular need a certain scale to have a future. Don't get stuck in subsidy-dependent projects, take your innovation seriously!

Read more?

Here you will find more information about Vertoro >.