Sugar beet has become increasingly important in recent years for the economy. Centuries ago, the crop was only used to extract sugar, but now all parts of the plant have an economic purpose. “I am convinced that sugar beet – and other plants – can make a major contribution as a circular raw material to the transition to a circular economy,” states Frank van Noord, Director of Innovation at agrifood cooperative Cosun. “Sugar beets are not only important for food, but they can also make a difference in the field of chemistry and materials.” He has been working with sugar beets for years already and has been director of the Cosun innovation center since 2017.
To start off, what do you do at Cosun?
Van Noord: “Cosun has traditionally always been a cooperative of arable farmers. We want to get the most out of the potential of plants, especially when you look at the sustainable developments taking place nowadays. When sugar beet is growing, it absorbs 40,000 kilograms of CO2. Harvesting, processing and transporting sugar beet also emits CO2, but at the end of the day you absorb 37,500 kilograms of CO2 per hectare of beet. So, apart from sugar production, the sugar beet is of tremendous value in other areas as well.”
“There are three new directions where we want to make inroads as a company. First of all, we want to contribute to the transition to plant-based proteins. In addition, we also want to contribute to people’s health by developing dietary fibers from chicory roots and other plants. Last but not least, we want to work on the transition from fossil raw materials to sustainable materials, replacing, for example, particular chemicals and plastics.”
Please explain: how can you make plastics out of sugar?
“Fossil oil is currently used in plastics. Basically, this oil is created from very ancient plants and animals that have fallen to the ground. With the passage of time, these have settled deeper and deeper into the earth. The pressure of the earth produces oil. So if you look at it from a chemical point of view, you could make things that you make from oil from crops that are not so old. You also need CO2 for the chemical process, which can be captured from the atmosphere. That’s how a circular system starts, no new CO2 enters the air, but the existing CO2 is reused.”
“There are already several projects underway on this front. Students at Eindhoven University of Technology made a completely recycled car a few years ago. To do this, they converted sugar to polylactic acid, which is a plastic made from sugar.”
Do you have another example of a material you can make with sugar?
“We produce certain nanofibers from sugar beets. These ultra-small fibers have a very special property. If you put them in a cup of water and you stir through the water, then you get a thin, liquid substance. Once you stop stirring, then it becomes thick. This property is useful in paint, for example. When you are still painting, the paint needs to be thin in order for it to flow well. But once you finish painting, then the paint needs to become thick, because you don’t want drips on your work. Oil-based chemicals are used for this purpose at the moment, but it might also be possible in the future with nanofibers from sugar beets.”
Will sugar beets solve climate problems?
“I do believe that sugar can contribute to solving climate problems. Especially in the field of renewable materials and chemicals, sugar is extremely important. However, other solutions are needed besides sugar. Now is the time to step up the pace. Don’t keep babbling on and making plans, but really put our shoulders to the wheel and go for it.”
What is Cosun itself doing in this field?
“In 2011, we started extracting energy from biomaterial left over from beet crops. We started making biogas by means of fermentation. A large proportion of our vehicles that transport sugar to our customers now run on our own biogas. We can’t run all the vehicles in the world on our biogas, but we are already taking a step in the right direction with our own vehicle fleet.”
“This year, we set up a new business unit, Cosun Protein. Beet leaves, which are normally mowed down and plowed into the soil, contain some really good proteins. Plus, we also extract functional proteins from fava beans. We can use these to replace chicken egg protein in various other uses. That’s another whole new line of business that can also make an important contribution where sustainability is concerned.”
What is your vision for the future?
”In addition to food, sugar beet can also contribute to sustainable forms of energy and renewable materials. That is what our company will be concentrating on in the coming years. Other kinds of innovations are also needed. Many people are still looking for the proverbial golden egg, the perfect solution to solve all problems. But there isn’t one. I think we need to think in terms of a swarm theory. We really need a swarm of solutions to solve the environmental and climate problems.”