Our projects

Education

Biotechnology and the bioeconomy are wide-spanning fields, intersecting multiple scientific disciplines. To ensure specialists, who are at the same time experts in their own fields, able to advance technology and applied research, and able to take a holistic view with an understanding of the different areas in the bioeconomy, a special education approach is needed. Within the trinational BIG-Cluster initiative, we develop new teaching approaches that target master’s students and doctoral students but also lifelong learning.
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The BIG-Cluster Flagship Circular Economy Education

Within the BIG-Cluster initiative, education has been defined as a horizontal flagship. Recognising the importance of education in providing a skilled workforce for the future bioeconomy, CLIB has included the module BIG-Training in its BMBF-funded BIG-Cluster project, which will help implement cross-border training in the circular economy. In BIG-C’s regions of Flanders, The Netherlands, and NRW, various and diverse technical, academic, and post-academic training activities already exist at a regional level. BIG-Training aims to establish BIG-C-wide coordinated education and training structures. In doing so, it will build on already-existing regional activities and develop new models to fill existing gaps. It will be important to align the region’s activities and intensify the exchange of participants, training topics, and education concepts.
In 2016, BIG-Cluster organised workshops to identify current needs and possible activities for the first cross-border education project. In April 2016, the BIG-Cluster Education Working group investigated the needs of companies when training future employees in the bioeconomy through a survey used to create a target-oriented BIG-Cluster education programme. The main focus has been on academic education, but the survey also dealt with different education levels to get a broader overview. The survey was divided into three parts: bioeconomy knowledge, learnable skills, and personal qualities. We identified that there is a need for better education in entrepreneurship and interdisciplinarity. A dedicated student business plan competition will be the ultimate tool to deal with these three challenges. The global Biobased Business Competition - short G-BiB - will focus on the development of a business plan for biorenewable chemicals, materials, and fuels. The first round was launched in November 2016. The aim is to focus on the practical application of entrepreneurship and interdisciplinarity as well as the transfer of learning. In the coming years, the second activity of the BIG-Cluster Training working group is a massive open online course (MOOC) for higher education on the concept of a bio-based economy.

Aromatics

Within “Aromatics and Fine Chemicals from Woody Biomass,” the goal is to fractionate and convert lignocellulosic biomass into bio-based aromatics.
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The aromatics can be producedfrom both the lignin and the hemicellulose sugars. The world aromatic market is under pressure (benzene scarcity in the United States due to shale gas; xylene scarcity in China due to xylene production facilities closure). It is expected that by 2020, the benzene demand will be 5 million tons/year higher compared with production. Several efforts are under way to solve this problem. The aromatics approach is driven by the need to use highly functionalised bio-based aromatic molecules that can be utilised in many applications (approximately 40 % of chemicals are aromatics), among which many are of higher added value. In BIG-C, possible targets are drop-in chemicals and molecules with new functionalities. Chemical and/or enzymatic upgrading strategies are of particular interest to acquire highly functionalised molecules such as terpenes. A biorefinery based on this approach will lead to higher total value creation as the lignin goes to prices much higher than its mere energy value, and additionally, the sugars are converted into fine chemicals instead of low-value fuels such as ethanol.

C1-Bioconversion

Currently, industrial gases containing CO and CO2 produced by, for example, steel mills are among the most relevant industrial side streams. These gases can be converted biotechnologically into a wide variety of molecules.
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Generally, CO- and CO2-containing emissions from diverse industrial sectors (chemical, energy, steel) are abundant in the BIG-Cluster region, which is Europe’s industrial heart. These can become valuable feedstock streams for the production of chemical building blocks that are currently produced through petrochemical process routes. The capability to produce these building blocks from renewable non-food feedstocks would be an asset for European industries. First, C1 bioconversion technology approaches are currently on the brink of commercialisation, but C1 bioconversion still has several hurdles before it can be extensively implemented.
To tackle these hurdles, the first BIG-Cluster think tank, with more than 20 stakeholders, on the topic “C1 Bioconversion” was set up. It aims at an integrated process optimisation with hand-in-hand strain development and process engineering. One of the major challenges is the limited product spectrum. Currently available intermediates are small molecules such as alcohols and organic acids. They are suited as bulk chemicals that suffer from high economic pressure, especially under the current historically low oil price, thereby restricting the implementation of new processes based on CO or CO2. Therefore, the BIG-Cluster think tank “C1 Bioconversion” aims to develop novel value chains comprising the primary conversion of these C1 gases through gas fermentation into the intermediates, which will be converted to higher-value chemicals using biotechnological and / or (electro)chemical methods. Target products in focus are chemical building blocks with wide-range applications but a higher value than ethanol, such as plastic precursors and further platform chemicals.