Our topics

In 2013, three feedstock-to-product (F2P) flagships and one horizontal flagship have been defined, which were and are of great importance for a European bioeconomy.

  1. The conversion of CO/CO2 to relatively small molecules/monomers;
  2. the development of complex/highly functionalized biobased aromatic molecules;
  3. the development of fuels for energy, mostly coming from dirtier or waste residues.
  4. the education of future professionals for the biobased industry

Read more about the topics of BIG-Cluster below.

In 2022 the BIG-Cluster core team started a co-creation process to reevalute the BIG-Cluster topics and identify new ones. Results of this co-creation process will be published here soon.

CO/CO2 utilization in the bioeconomy – from bulk to fine chemicals

The biotechnological use of CO2 through various processes with different photosynthetic or microbial fermentation systems plays a decisive role within the bioeconomy, especially through the possibility to reduce the CO2 footprint of these processes and products.

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On top of that, biotech processes have less stringent needs concerning purity of the gas stream. Over the past 20 years, these technologies have been used mainly for the biobased production of fuels and bulk chemicals (e.g. ethanol or acetone). Therefore, large quantities of air capture or C1- containing process gases (e.g. steel or cement production) and sophisticated technologies with high TRL were required. However, only a few process examples are available on an industrial production scale, e.g. the ethanol production of LanzaTech with CO2 from steel mills of ArcelorMittal.

Many fermentative or photosynthetic conversion processes do not reach industrial scale due to limitations in scalability. Thus, the focus of process development has meanwhile moved towards the synthesis of specialty and fine chemicals. These products are produced in smaller batches and therefore offer more possibilities for small and medium scale production processes or new technical developments in this field.

In the BIG-cluster region, several SMEs and large companies established technologies at industrial scale and produce high-performance materials, e.g. Covestro or Photanol. The numerous R&D projects (e.g. Carbon2Chem, BioRECO2VER, BIOCON-CO2, and BioCOnversion) focusing on the biotechnological use of CO2 in the BIG-Cluster region also demonstrate the need for further development of existing processes and the establishment of new technologies and products. Within BIG-Cluster, an international and interdisciplinary think tank community is developing new ideas and creating new partnerships and consortia to further drive C1 utilization forward.

Aromatics from woody biomass – an infinite amount of possibilities

In the last few years, a lot of challenges have been tackled to exploit the enormous potential of lignocellulosic biomass, i.e. non-edible biomass such as wood, straw, corn stover, agricultural and forestry residues, and switch grass, as a feedstock to produce (bio-)aromatics, thereby stimulating the future bioeconomy.

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There is already a large existing market for phenolic compounds from fossil sources, which can be partly substituted by biobased aromatics, and additionally, bioaromatics provide new functionalities creating opportunities for new applications and markets.

Given the diverse polymeric build-up of lignin, and the numerous technologies to convert this into useful chemical building blocks, the matrix of possibilities is virtually endless. On top of that, the information on the current state-of-the-art however is often scattered, making it difficult to assess the value, accessibility, or applicability of these bio-aromatics throughout the value chain. Therefore, a lot of effort has been invested in elaborating a norm for the different starting materials and products on the one hand, and mapping of the different technologies and feedstocks (Catalisti BAFTA project) on the other hand, which in the latter case has led to a comprehensive overview. And finally, different initiatives are running and on their way into upscaling of selected technologies (starting directly from woody biomass, from lignin coming from paper & pulp industry of bio ethanol production, or even building up aromatics via sugar/furan chemistry) to provide industry with larger samples to assess the feasibility on a relevant industrial scale, which has been a severe bottleneck in most of the projects until now.

The LignoValue pilot project (coordinated by VITO) for example, will be a huge step towards a demonstration line. This mobile and flexible pilot line planned to be operating in 2021 will enable research and industry in the BIG-Cluster region to further develop industrial-scale bioaromatics applications. All these actions should ultimately lead to reduce the risk for companies to invest in a future bioaromatics demonstration plant in the BIG-Cluster region – a region with an ample supply of feedstock – and establishing a full value chain.

The development of many innovative biobased aromatic molecules will lead to innovative materials in many sectors with a strong focus on construction and automotive sectors, where a large transition is needed to make housing and mobility more sustainable. Especially in the case of lignin-valorization, the competitive use of lignocellulose will strongly be increased as it was shown that the single use of the sugar fraction or cellulose-fiber fraction of lignocellulose was not economically viable.

Alternative fuels – contributing to sustainable long-distance transport

Alternative fuels are typically able to reduce the CO2 output of the energy carrier by 50 - 100% compared to fuels made from fossil feedstock.

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This is crucial for sectors that have no option to use electricity or fuel cell technology in the foreseeable future such as long-distance trucking, shipping, and aviation. For trucking biodiesel is expected to remain the energy carrier of choice.

There are two routes developed at large commercial scale i.e., fatty acid methyl esters (FAME) and hydrotreated vegetable oils (HVO). Biomass feedstock ranges from first generation oil (vegetable oil) to second generation oil (tall oil from the pulp and paper industry, waste oils from animal fat processing or cooking oils). The latest trend is to also use (mixed) plastic recycle streams and convert these into pyrolysis oil, which is subsequently blended with the vegetable oils for hydrotreating, and a mixed HVO/renewable diesel is produced. Other biodiesels are produced via BTL (Biomass to liquids), gasification of (woody) biomass or municipal solid waste (MSW, then called refuse derived fuel (RDF)) to syngas and converted via Fischer-Tropsch or GTL (gas to liquids), the latter technology can also produce biokerosene. Next to Fischer-Tropsch alternative C1 chemistries have been developed via methanol-to-gasoline technology (MTG). The current route for biokerosene production is via waste oils as feedstock. In the BIG-Cluster region a production line with a designed capacity of 100,000 tons and planned startup in 2022 is set up. Alternative routes next to oils-to jet plus syngas-to-jet involve alcohols-to-jet and sugars-to-jet.

Various partners in the BIG-Cluster region are active in the field of biobunker oil, notably Vertoro, Progression Industries, and Goodfuels. There is a good link with the lignin valorization activities for the bioaromatics from the woody biomass program. Lignin residues that remain from high(er) end molecular targets can qualify for the biobunker application. When properly hydrotreated, polished or upgraded, the biofuels lend themselves equally well to be used as bio- or renewable naphtha in steam crackers. This fits well with strategies of major commodity producers like SABIC, DOW and BASF via a material balance approach.

The BIG-Cluster region with its high population, high industrial density, and a strong infrastructure needs robust alternative fuel options able to compete with fossil-based fuels. The BIG-Cluster network with high level academic research and chemical and energy industry working together forms a perfect ecosystem to develop improved biofuel options, which fulfill all demands.

Bioeconomy Education

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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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.

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.

Academic institutes and the industry have worked together in the project CROSSBEE to develop education targeting students and young professionals. A massive open online course (MOOC) on biobased products was produced and published to train learners in various fields of biotechnology. The businessplan challenge G-BIB tackled entrepreneurship education. A skill not only necessary to transfer technologies from the lab into the market, but also relevant for communication with diverse disciplines, solution-based working and expanding of one's horizon.