What is an interesting substance that can serve as an alternative to diesel? Michael Boot started his PhD research with that question. That was in 2005. He was a mechanical engineering graduate and had a question for chemistry. Boot turned to the research group of Emiel Hensen, a chemist and professor of Inorganic Materials and Catalysis at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands. Together they researched a circular CO2-neutral replacement for petroleum made from natural lignin. Their search led to start-up Vertoro (2018) and a pilot plant at the Brightlands Chemelot Campus in Geleen (2019), among other things. A recent investment will allow the start-up to build a factory and thus scale up. Boot expects to begin operating the factory in mid-2022.
Boot: “This is the most exciting scale-up step. If this is successful, it will then be possible to make quantities 100 times greater than we can now. Then we will go from sample quantities and batches to continuous production.”
Learn more about Vertoro’s ‘green gold’ here.
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During his PhD research, entrepreneur Boot stumbled upon lignin, which is found in all trees and plants. “Lignin is a natural polymer,” scientist Hensen continues. “It has a fairly rigid structure which gives plants and trees, for example, the strength to grow upwards. Lignin contains structures that Michael discovered improved combustion properties when burned.”
At the time, much was already known in the literature about the influence of molecular structure on emissions in diesel engines, Boot says. “For example, if there is oxygen in a molecular structure, soot emissions are reduced. But at equal oxygen percentages in fuel, say 10 percent, you saw a huge difference in the suppression of soot, regardless of whether the molecule was round, had branches or was a straight chain.”
Boot found these interesting molecules in lignin, which is a polymer, Hensen reemphasizes. “You first have to break those down into monomers, the smallest units, so you can use them again. So that was the question: can you convert lignin into those components?”
“As ugly as possible”
Several years were then spent working on that conversion. Hensen explains: “We learned more and more of what is possible and what is not. The litmus test was: can we make money with it? The answer to that was: no. It would simply be too expensive.”
That’s when Boot figured out that he wanted to do things differently. He decided not to pursue an end product, but an intermediate one. Hensen says: “This would be a product that resembles oil and something that other companies, refineries for example, can use for their products. That was an inventive move by Michael and his colleagues.”
Boot comments: “In the beginning, the research was mainly a race between different research groups as to who would be first to decompose lignin into the highest concentration of high-quality monomers.” Eventually, Boot and Hensen found out that those would be very expensive molecules. Too expensive for energy applications, according to Boot. “Then we started turning it around: we decided not to make it as beautiful as possible, but as ugly as possible.” Hensen: “As in ‘cheap.'”
“You can compare it a bit to how Ryanair operates,” Boot explains. “KLM then stands for those high-end monomers. During a KLM flight, you are offered all sorts of things that are not strictly necessary to get from A to B such as free food, luggage space and seat selection. Some just want to fly from A to B without frills.” Boot stripped those very expensive monomers of everything that wasn’t strictly necessary, but so that it could still flow through a tube. “Because that’s the problem with biomass. It’s a solid. If we want to make a connection between the bio-based and the fossil world, it has to be able to flow through a tube.”
Step by step, the “rather elegant complicated chemistry” was scaled back. Boot: “Less catalyst, less acid, lower temperatures, shorter retention times in the reactor. To the point where it can just barely flow through a tube. You could compare it to your coffee machine. You replace water with disinfection alcohol, put in a little battery acid, add sawdust instead of coffee beans and heat it up to 180 degrees. Just like a cup of espresso, you partially dissolve biomass with this.”
“Making a global impact,” Boot said in an earlier interview with IO when asked about his goal. For that, he needs to go to the market. In 2017, Vertoro was born as a spin-off of a public-private partnership, InSciTe, of Eindhoven University of Technology, Maastricht University, the Brightlands Chemelot Campus and DSM. At the time, that consortium was running a number of projects to develop bio-based technologies.
The Brightlands Chemelot Campus is the focal point, says Boot. “All the pilot equipment was present there, such as installations to scale up. Our initial investors are also investors from the Chemelot ecosystem.” These include LIOF, the regional development agency of the province of Limburg, and Brightlands Venture Partners, a venture capital fund in which DSM, the regional Rabobank and LIOF are represented.
Vertoro raised its first funds in 2018. This enabled the start-up to make a batch the size of a kilogram. With the investment from new investment partners, Maersk Growth and SHIFT Invest and existing investors, Vertoro is now building a new plant. The oil from lignin, now dubbed Goldilocks®, will then be used as a more sustainable marine fuel, among other things.
To run a test in one cylinder of a ship’s engine, 10 tons of oil are easily required, says Boot. “That’s just for a few hours of running on one cylinder of an engine. A ship usually has several engines with sometimes dozens of cylinders. And it has to sail for months. A large Maersk container ship consumes more than 10,000 tons of fuel a year.”
For Hensen, Vertoro is a great example of how fundamental science and commerce meet. “I see myself as the scientist and Michael as the entrepreneur. We speak different languages but by working together we have learned each other’s language.” That’s how Boot came up with the idea of converting lignin to oil through that so-called coffee-making process. “Whether he would have gotten that idea without the fundamental research is difficult to determine in retrospect. In any case, you need the research to know what doesn’t work.”
Boot is very excited that there is now a plant that can make it possible to produce oil continuously. “From batch quantities to continuous production is quite a difference. It’s hard to compare. You just have to start building and then keep tinkering until it works.” In May 2022, Boot expects to “turn on” the plant.
If it works, that would mean a natural replacement for petroleum has been created which can be used for more than just making ship fuel. “A German company is using it as an antioxidant in animal feed. Yet another German company applies it as an antioxidant and UV stabilizer in face cream. Those lignin molecules are so special. There is no other CO2-neutral energy carrier that has such high-value applications immediately.”
Biomass, however, does not have public opinion and politics on board, Boot informs us. In the new investment round, Vertoro was given the requirement that the company may only use biomass derived from agricultural residues or forestry waste in the broadest sense of the word. Boot clarifies: “So only sawdust, branches or trees that have become diseased for whatever reason can be used. Our suppliers must certify that no forests were cut down for the sawdust they supply.”
Boot hopes Vertoro will become a platform like Google. “It would be an open-source platform where we share our lignin molecules with everyone. We would send samples to everyone without stipulating in contracts what they can or cannot do with it. We want companies in the chemical and energy sectors to develop apps, as in applications for lignin, for our platform. That could be a plastic, a sunscreen or a marine fuel.”
Vertoro itself does not create applications but focuses on further developing the product and scaling up the platform. “We hope to have a killer app associated with us that would create so many network effects for the platform that companies who want to become more sustainable can’t avoid it.”