Vertoro is Spanish for “Green Gold“. The founders clearly had their end product in mind when they started thinking of a brand name. Vertoro, a spin-off from The Chemelot Institute for Science & Technology (InSciTe), valorises the technology of turning lignin, a residual stream produced by paper pulp and cellulosic ethanol plants, into so-called crude lignin oil (CLO). And this CLO is analogous to fossil crude oil, in the sense that it is not an end-product, but an intermediate for the production of fuels and chemicals. Vertoro, together with Prof. Emiel Hensen from Eindhoven University of Technology, received a Take-off grant of 40.000 € awarded by the NWO Domain Applied and Engineering Sciences. The grant will be used to improve on and further scale up the production of CLO. Ultimately, in 2019 and 2022 a 50 ton pilot and 10.000 ton demo CLO plant, respectively, will be constructed at the Brightlands Chemelot Campus in Geleen.

The idea of using lignin as a feedstock for the production of green chemicals and biofuels was first formed when Vertoro were looking for a way to overcome the problems with existing biofuels.  “At present, there is no universal biofuel,” says Michael Boot, co-founder and CEO at Vertoro. “Ethanol cannot readily be used in diesel engines and biodiesel cannot be used in gasoline engines. Importantly, gasoline, as a base fuel, is of itself relatively low in octane number, thereby limiting the maximum achievable efficiency and performance of gasoline engines. Diesel, in turn, is prone to promote the formation of hazardous nitric oxide and soot emissions. We found that so-called aromatic oxygenates can help resolve these issues and might, therefore, be a promising candidate for the universal biofuel label. Given that lignin is comprised of 100% aromatic oxygenates, we believe it to be the ideal feedstock to produce such a universal biofuel.”

Worldwide, there have been numerous attempts to turn biomass into fuels – the candidates for the suitable feedstock for the associated technologies varied from algae, bacteria and, even, pig manure. However, these initiatives did not arrive at the mass production level. Vertoro’s initiative differs from them not only by their choice of biomass feedstock and process conditions. Michael Boot says: “Vertoro’s business model implements best practices of the petrochemical industry. This industry is profit driven, while the biobased one is value driven. Importantly, profit is value minus costs to arrive at a said value. Regrettably, costs are too often overlooked or at best heavily underestimated in the biobased world. At Vertoro, the product is CLO, a relatively low-value product, and the process, which most closely resembles making a good espresso, is relatively simple, robust, flexible, and, most importantly, cheap.”

“The process most closely resembles making a good espresso: it’s relatively simple, robust, flexible, and, most importantly, cheap.”

Vertoro makes their “espresso” from lignin powder, which, like ground coffee beans, is a brown powder, and a relatively small amount of solvent. These are then subjected to some moderate amounts of heat and pressure. In contrast to the traditional ways of lignin conversion, the Vertoro approach does not require catalysts, acids, or even solvent recovery. The latter attribute of technology means that no boiling of the solvent is required, thereby saving on energy and leaving a relatively low carbon footprint. The end product of the process is a mixture of lignin and solvent. Depending on the type of the solvent, this mixture can be used for different purposes. “If you want to produce phenol resins – which are used to produce snooker balls for example – you add phenol as a solvent. The resulting CLO can then be used directly as the feedstock for the production of partially bio-based phenol resins,” says Michael Boot. “Another example is adding diols to lignin to arrive at a bio-based feedstock for polyurethane (faux leather used for chairs, bags, etc). Lignin to CLO technology is thus flexible, seeing as it can be adjusted for different markets, simply by means of changing the solvent.”

“Vertoro aims at taking a Saudi-Arabia-like place in the biobased value chain”

Vertoro is focused only on producing an intermediate without going to high-value products itself. “Vertoro aims at taking a Saudi-Arabia-like place in the biobased value chain by focussing on producing a biobased crude oil cheaper and at a scale larger than anyone else. The Saudi Arabia approach also means that the downstream application of our oil ends is not important to us,” says Michael Boot. This differentiates Vertoro from existing lignin initiatives in the Netherlands. “We have found that when you attempt to produce high-value products from lignin directly, the associated capital and operational expenses become too high to turn a profit,” says Michael Boot. ”Shell does not produce gasoline on the top of its oil rigs either, nor does Tesla produce cars in Chili near the lithium mining sites. That is why, to us at least, it does not make sense to produce things like carbon nanotubes or other high-value products near the lignin “mining” site.”

“Shell does not produce gasoline on the top of its oil rigs either, nor does Tesla produce cars in Chili near the lithium mining sites.”

In the future, Vertoro plans to sell licenses for CLO production to companies with lignin streams. The pulp and paper industry has a huge cumulative lignin stream of over 50 million tons per year (however, lignin there is often mixed with other chemicals and thus requires extensive upstream refining). By contrast, the cellulosic ethanol industry produces a mere 1-2 million tons of relatively pure lignin per year; although this value is forecast to grow exponentially over the coming decades. “We expect the first commercial-scale CLO plant to appear in the US Midwest because this is where the greater part of the cellulosic ethanol production takes place,” says Michael Boot. “Integrating this add-on module to an existing production site is not difficult – it can share steam, electricity and other utilities, as well as make use of excess heat from cellulosic ethanol production.”

Diesel cars might be banned in a number of EU states by 2030-2040, adoption of new electric vehicles in the mass market is being promoted and various kinds of alternative car fuels are being developed. Will there be the market for CLO in the future? As Michael Boot tells us: “Gasoline and diesel (for passenger cars) jointly amount to about 40% of a barrel of oil. The rest, minus less than 10% reserved for the chemical industry, goes to marine, aviation, long-haul diesel, and electricity generation markets. So even if there is not a market for CLO in the chemical industry, the market for liquid fuels, fossil or otherwise, will remain huge for decades to come.”

Recently Vertoro has been nominated for the most promising new Dutch technology of 2018 award by “KIJK” science magazine. Vote online for your favourite start-up on the contest page.