July 25, 2024

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BioBTX and the holy grail of green chemistry Delfzijl: “The whole world has visited us”

BioBTX and the holy grail of green chemistry Delfzijl: “The whole world has visited us”

Three substances are in high demand: benzene, toluene, and xylene (BTX) – aromatics made from petroleum. BioBTX in Delfzijl wants to be the first in the world to produce renewable BTX based on plastic waste. “The whole world came to see us.”

Do they have the holy grail of ring chemistry on their hands? “Well, okay, maybe, but I don’t know if that’s the right tone for a northern newspaper,” Cor Kamminga Gronings wants to remain sober. “Yes, in principle,” says Ton Vries. “If we can achieve this with the factory in Delfzijl, you can call it a success Holy Grail .”

BTX is fossil-free

Since 2010, Ferris and Kamminga have been working on the idea of ​​producing BTX free of fossil raw materials. They both do this through their own companies KNN Group (Kamminga) and Syncom (Vries). In 2012 this led to the founding of BioBTX. In cooperation with Eric Heres’s department, they are conducting further research on their idea at the University of Groningen.

What exactly is that idea?

“It’s actually pretty simple,” says Freis. “In the chemical industry, you have a number of basic elements that are used a lot. Then you talk about ethylene and propylene and you talk about aromatics: benzene, toluene and xylene. Green alternatives to ethylene and propylene have been considered. But that has not happened for aromatics.”

So Kammenga and Freeze worked on the idea of ​​heating biomass or plastic waste on the drawing board. “Pyrolysis,” says Freis. “What happens next is that the raw materials are broken down into pieces, which we call Legos. We put these blocks in a catalyst and turn them into aromatics. It doesn’t get any more complicated than that.”

Global market worth $300 billion

This may be the case, but what the people of Groningen did has not happened anywhere else. However, they have achieved such results in a pilot plant that around 2016 they will begin to think about building a plant that will produce sustainable BTX on a commercial basis.

Producing BTX sustainably is something the whole world is interested in. Aromatics are the raw materials for products that everyone uses every day. The BTX market is huge. Its value globally ranges from 200 to 330 billion dollars.

This world has come to BioBTX in recent years, Kammenga says. “There is a lot of demand for it. Everyone is looking for an alternative to oil-based BTX.”

Ferris: “It’s a popular product. Without exaggeration, I think the top 20 chemical companies have visited us now. They say ‘If you start your plant, we want something right away.’ Then you’re talking about companies like BASF, Shell or Exxon.”

The first plant is very expensive

With this story in hand, it was not difficult to convince lenders that investing in BioBTX was profitable. But investments in new circular technology that do not yet have a compelling revenue model simply cannot be talked about. “Everything is new,” Kammenga says. “When you are ready for your 16th plant, you have the experience and know exactly what to do.”

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Ferris adds that the first plant is very expensive. “In the current chemical industry, the rule of thumb is that you build a 100-kiloton plant for 100 million euros. If you build a new plant, you will have a 25-kiloton plant for 100 million euros.”

That’s why Kammenga and Freeze have gathered a team around themselves with knowledge and experience. And they talk. a lot. “Most investors believe the technology works. It’s about creating confidence that the plant is doing what we expect it to do.”

Expand to 50 kt

This is the factory that converts 20 kilotons of plastic waste into aromatics annually. If these quantities are reached in the first year, the planned plant can also be expanded to a capacity of 50 kilotons. It is also interesting that BioBTX technology is sold abroad under license.

License selling is an important part of BioBTX’s revenue model. At the same time, it is also more sustainable. “You don’t want to drag that plastic around. You want to move the plant to where the plastic is.”

In recent months, Kammenga and Freeze have talked about investors among their latest millionaires. They now have more than 80 million to build the first phase of their factory in Delfzijl. They say the budget is wide-ranging to accommodate construction setbacks.

The circular economy is no longer a topic of discussion, it is becoming tangible

The first step is thus taken in Groningen towards a world in which BTX production is less dependent on fossil raw materials. The first step on a long road down the road. Freis: “A mature BTX plant can produce 100 kilotonnes per year. You shouldn’t want more considering the amount of plastic you use. In comparison, the chemical industry in Europe has plants that each produce more than 1,000 kilotonnes of petroleum-based BTX per year .

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The BTX produced by BioBTX is renewable, but not indefinitely. “You always have a loss of value along the way. That’s why we’re also moving towards sustainable biomass-based production.”

He concludes that it is a beginning. In just over two years there will be a factory that converts plastic into aromatic substances. “It has shown concretely that the circular economy is no longer a topic of discussion, but that it will actually work. And that we are fully engaged in this in the North, also with companies like CuRe and Paques Biomaterials in Emmen. We are really showing that.”