Towards a biobased future

As I’ve started my first week as an Interreg Reporter, I’ve begun to notice that quite a few projects within the Interreg Flanders-the Netherlands programme receive funding to research and promote innovations concerning the biobased economy, or bioeconomy. While this term probably rings a bell for many of us, it may not immediately be clear what these projects are working on or why they do so. It probably doesn’t really help that when you Google ‘biobased economy’ you’ll find that there exist many different definitions and thoughts about the topic. Nevertheless, I’ve found that most of these thoughts are complementary, rather than contradictory.  I’d like to use this blog to explore what it means to develop a biobased economy and discover what progress is being made in the grensregio.

Development of a biobased economy in the grensregio

The concept of a biobased economy by and large refers to all economic activity that is derived from biotechnological research and science. Our human understanding of genetic material and our ever-growing ability to manipulate it creates opportunities in industrial processes related to, for example, health, energy, agriculture or chemics. Moving towards a biobased economy entails a transition towards economic activity on the basis of biomass resources, rather than conventional fossil resources. For example, instead of using plastic for packaging, we can package our groceries using fibres from a combination of processed agricultural wastes and hennep.

Flanders and the Netherlands are leading in terms of the development of a biobased economy. This development is also drastically needed. The grensregio knows a large industrial and chemical sector and intensive agriculture. This characteristic is both a threat and an opportunity. On the one hand, industrial and agricultural pollution and urbanisation put a lot of pressure on society and the natural environment. Consequently, we face challenges such as biodiversity loss, efficient “waste” management or air pollution. On the other hand, there is a lot of knowledge available in the field of biochemical and biotechnical sciences. The development of the biobased economy may be crucial for us and our environment, but it is not without risks. Social and physical infrastructure is required in order to guarantee the quality of newly developed products by means of experimenting and improving. The grensregio is a great starting place where such infrastructure can emerge and flourish, with a solid basis already present in the many existing industrially and chemically oriented enterprises and knowledge institutes. On top of that, implementing biobased innovations today could give the private sector in the grensregio a competitive advantage over other regions tommorow.

To encourage and guide these developments, the Dutch and Flemish governments have developed a biobased strategy. Their policies are in line with the overarching European Commission strategy, which aims to boost biobased entrepreneurship and R&D across the EU. The policy objectives are clear: ensuring food security, managing natural resources sustainably, reducing dependence on non-renewable resources, mitigating and adapting to climate change, and finally, creating jobs and maintaining European competitiveness. Several investment priorities within the Interreg Flanders-the Netherlands programme are closely linked to the European and national strategies for a biobased economy. Some examples are the improvement of infrastructure for R&D (priority 1A), the sustainable use of ecosystem services (priority 3A) and technological innovations to improve environmental protection or the efficient use of resources in the waste management sector (priority 3B).

There are several reasons for which Flanders and the Southern Netherlands can well work together on the development of a biobased economy. An obvious reason is that some (biomass) resources are prevalent across the border. Forests, for example, from which timber and other ecosystem services can be derived, aren’t shy about crossing the border. A second reason is that knowledge sharing can lead to better and faster developments due to the relatively similar character of the economies of the two areas. For instance, many enterprises and knowledge institutes on both sides of the border are increasingly interested in the use of 3D printing, potentially using biomass materials. Therefore, new developments in this field are beneficial to companies and institutes in both countries. Third, sometimes different types of complementary resources and knowledge are present on each side of the border, which together can lead to new innovations. For example, knowledge on the production and use of biomass resources for paper and cardboard is spread across the region. Therefore many parties can benefit from the existence of a long-lasting network that facilitates knowledge exchange. New production lines for innovative products can emerge when the existing expertise and physical R&D infrastructure from Flemish and Dutch actors are combined.

The visualisation below of the industrial process that the project BIO-HArT facilitates illustrates the strength of cooperation in the grensregio. This project experiments with the conversion of biomass into aromatics, which are then used for several end products, like fuels or flavoring substances. These experiments can ultimately lead to a biobased market for aromatics by increasing confidence in technological possibilities and reducing the risk to invest.

When the snowball starts to roll…

As is often the case, one development in the biotechnological industry can lead to (the demand for) another. A healthy economy consists of a variety of sectors and therefore biobased evolutions need to be implemented at different levels of production chains and in different sectors too. The biobased projects that are funded within the current Interreg Flanders-the Netherlands programme are therefore varying in nature. One experiments with the use of biomass in 3D printing (Accelerate3), while another explores which crops can well be transformed into construction materials by building a mobile holiday home as a pilot case (Growing a green future). Furthermore, as our economy transforms, the labour market needs to move along too. The project Grenzeloos Biobased Onderwijs is a cooperation between schools and knowledge institutes from Flanders and the Netherlands, complemented by actors from the private sector, that works on a better balance between the demand and supply of highly educated workers in the biotechnical field. Planned activities vary from enthusing high school students for the biobased economy to the development of a specific postgraduate programme. Furthermore, the project develops a platform for continually updated courses and trainings for working people, to provide learning opportunities at all stages in one’s career. After all, we can only truly move towards a biobased future when technological developments go hand in hand with innovative policies and well-trained young generations.

For those among us who understand some Dutch, if you want to discover more projects that are funded within the (current) Interreg V programme, I’d encourage you to go to www.grensregio.eu and browse a bit through the project list. Here’s a few projects that will definitely already capture your interest:

  • The Triple F project develops an opportunity map for the grensregio which illustrates the supply and demand for food “waste” as a new resource, including the necessary technologies to properly re-use these products.
  • Eco2eco explores to what extent innovative forestry techniques can be applied in the grensregio, illustrating that ecology and economy can go hand in hand.
  • Grasgoed investigates how the remains of nature management in the region can efficiently be transformed into fuel, fertiliser, livestock nutrition or fibre for packaging materials.
  • De Blauwe Keten aims to modernise the greenhouse sector in Flanders and the Netherlands, improving this sector’s competitive position in the global market. Among others, it researches the potential production of microalgae, which can be used as a resource in the fields of nutrition, textile, construction, pharmacy and cosmetics.

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