A great bioleap forward
There’s no disputing the logic: “The more demonstration plants we have in Europe, the more industrial production will develop here,” explains Dirk Carrez, Executive Director of the Bio-based Industries Consortium (BIC), the private partner in the new Bio-based Industries Joint Undertaking (BBI-JU) launched in July. While the industry is contributing the lion’s share of BBI-JU funding (€2.7bn), the European Commission has also added another billion to the pot. The money is earmarked for research projects that will run until 2024.
“Finally, we have a set budget and a stable long-term framework for several years,” says Carrez. The scope of the programme isn’t terrifically wide, but it could prove decisive, especially because it reaches out beyond already existing pilot facilities (see box on page 42): “We want to go a bit further in the innovation chain and also set up small-scale production plants.” At demonstration plants, project beneficiaries can work on proof-of-concept for specific technology. “Right now, these kinds of projects are only realised in other parts of the world,” complains Carrez.
All eggs in one basket?
The US has developed a bio-based economy around corn, while Brazil focuses on sugar cane. And Europe? “Here we have many different crops, which is an advantage because we are more flexible,” explains Carrez. “But on the other hand, we have to develop different technologies to use all these different materials.” That’s one reason why the BIC chief is especially keen on sugar beet.
Starting in 2017, the EU plans to end the current sugar quota system that allows countries and sugar companies in a region to produce and market unlimited amounts of sugar, which leads to fluctuations in sugar prices driven by higher production and more export options. In fact, the European Commission’s own impact study forecasts around a 45% drop in prices compared to 2012. “Sugar beet production is very efficient in some parts of the continent, such as northern France, Belgium and Germany,” he says. Either by choice or forced by circumstance, big sugar companies like Südzucker, Nordzucker and Cargill have now joined the BIC.
Transporting biomass remains a challenge
But there are also those opposed, among them Manfred Kircher, who views the “focus on local raw materials” as “too restrictive.” Kircher, cluster manager of German CLIB2021, is one of the driving forces behind the BIG-C initiative, which is seeking to concentrate and coordinate bio-based industry projects in Flanders (Belgium), North Rhine Westphalia (Germany) and the Netherlands. He argues that Europe has imported carbon sources for more than a century, and that the continent’s export industry is now and will be dependent on imported raw material. For Kircher, it’s not a question of “if”, but “how” biomass is coming to Europe. “It’s not like the oil industry,” he insists. “There is still no cheap infrastructure for importing and distributing biomass.” Crops and crop waste are too bulky. In the future, Kircher says, biomass needs to be transformed into an easily transferrable intermediate in its countries of origin, although he admits that it’s “still not clear what intermediate will turn out most feasible.”
Carrez counters by reminding the bioeconomy scene to keep things simple in the beginning. “We don’t have to stretch to be as sustainable and cost-effective as possible from the outset. Let’s take our time for a learning curve – one in which imperfect industries are allowed to develop. Under such a policy, we also need to use first-generation feedstocks like sugar.” Second-generation (2G) feedstocks such as agricultural waste and its by-products have a big disadvantage: they require large amounts of energy to convert fibre into sugars. Because of demands made by the food industry, 2G feedstock-derived sugar will likely never be cheap enough to make it interesting for biofuels production.