March 2015 has been an interesting month for agriculture. It seems that an increasing number of companies are currently looking into valorisation possibilities of agricultural waste streams (e.g. production of biobased chemicals and materials). Only in the last week, 4 different meetings with 4 different companies were held, all focusing on biobased production from agricultural waste materials. Interesting products were polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB), methanol, hydrogen, butanol, polylactate (PLA), et cetera. It has been like this for the last month: every week, new projects are discussed and started. It is not only a trend at universities (we have seen that for a while now), but SME’s as well as larger companies come up with interesting developing plans. If I’m not mistaking, this will bring a whole new purpose for agricultural production. It might even be an opportunity for agriculture in developing countries to develop faster, as waste materials also gains more value.

Genetically engineered bacteria

In the first week of March, while our team received guests from Canada for more than a week (they were here for the market introduction of biobased, non-toxic and biodegradable lubricants and paint removers), a chemical giant BASF announced their commercial production of polytetrahydrofuran (polyTHF) derived entirely from biomass feedstocks. The process hinges on a microbial fermentation of sugars to produce 1,4-butanediol (BDO), which is purified and polymerized. The company uses genetically engineered bacteria to produce and excrete BDO in sufficient quantity and purity. [GMO? Really? Yes. The modified bacteria are separated from the liquid containing the chemical. After purification, no bacteria is present anymore in the product. This way of processing is used in the chemical industries for quite some time now].

Ski boots and skateboards made from agricultural waste?

PolyTHF is primarily used as a component in polyester and polyurethane materials. According to BASF, the bio-based PolyTHF is identical in quality to the petrochemical-based product. The product is mainly applied as a chemical building block for thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU), which is used to make for example parts of ski boots and cable sheathing. Other applications include cast elastomers, which are used, for example, for the production of wheels for skateboards and inline skates. According to BASF, the opportunity to expand the range of products and applications made from renewable raw materials allows them and their partners to further explore the long-term market acceptance of this biobased technology.

Opportunity for renewable raw materials

In the second week of March, in the Dutch province of Limburg, Letters of Intent were signed between a number of SMEs that intent to collaborate with each other in terms of raw materials and waste products. Fermentation of agricultural and food processing waste was also recognized as a possibility for valorization of these streams or reduction of costs.

The collaboration between the companies takes place in the context of the SILVER project, using a methodology that aims to accelerate innovation in the industry. SILVER stands for: Symbiosis in Limburg and Accelerating Realization. The process is in principle very simple: companies from all sectors are brought together in informal workshops with the aim of sharing as much information as possible about raw materials, waste, energy, services, knowledge and other innovative ideas. This provides new forms of cooperation between businesses and institutions.

5 million in savings

The basic idea is simple: to use raw materials and waste products/residual streams that are produced within a company as smart and responsible as possible (and working together on this issue with other entrepreneurs). This will not only contribute to a sustainable future, but also increases profits. Innovation is the foundation for growth: over the past year and a half, the SILVER partnerships already yielded over 5 million in savings. The project started in 2013 and already 70 companies have signed up. A recent workshop floor was good for a whopping 298 matches. Team members of are helping the participants to find solutions for the many hurdles they encounter.

Last week, I saw the same kind of opportunities during those 4 meetings. Locals are working with locals on efficient production of food, feed, chemicals, fuels, energy and biomaterials. This should result in more profitable production chains. I wonder how long it will take before the first benefits of more profitable production chains will start to show an increase of efficient food/energy production in the countries that really need it… don’t you?

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