New Dutch megalab will test sustainability on an industrial scale
Delft’s University of Technology (TU) is constructing a vast new laboratory to investigate how sustainable energy and raw materials can be made from waste products on an industrial scale.
The ultimate goal: a sustainable economy.
It’s well known that all sorts of organic waste can be converted into energy and usable materials in the laboratory. Nice and useful for modest applications. But how do you convert such a process to a provincial or even a national level? In the end you can only be sure it will work by carrying out your tests on an industrial scale.
And that’s what’s going to happen at the TU in the southern Netherlands. Backed not just by money from the government, but also from agriculture and industry, a ground-breaking laboratory is to be built. The price tag: 100 million euros.
Luuk van der Wielen is a professor at Delft. He says this Dutch project is unique in the world, and not just because the budget for the TU’s ‘bio-process’ technology has been quadrupled in one go. There are all sorts of practical problems demanding a solution, says Van der Wielen.
“How finely do you shred a tree? If you work on a serious industrial scale, then a huge number of tree-shredders need to pump through giant tubes in such a factory. How fine does the end product have to be to keep things flowing smoothly? Too coarse and you don’t retrieve all the raw materials the wood has to offer. Too fine and everything sticks together and the process grinds to a halt. You can really only investigate this kind of thing by doing it ‘for real’.
“So we’re bringing all sorts of ways to treat and process biological waste products together in one lab,” continues Van der Wielen. “Whether it’s about the collection, preparation and treatment of raw materials, about fermentation, the production of bio-fuels and building materials, or even the production of raw materials for the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, we’re looking at all of them at the same time.”
Another reason for the lab being so vast is that some processes work differently depending on whether they’re carried out on a large or small scale.
In a small tank – more properly called a bioreactor – you can sustain bacteria that convert agricultural waste and compost into biogas. But if such a tank is big enough to provide a whole neighbourhood or town with gas, then the bacteria are all going to collect at the spot in the tank where their food comes in. Which means that in most of the giant bioreactor, nothing will happen. It’s precisely to solve such problems that large-scale experiments are needed.
The big question is whether it will work. Is a sustainable economy possible in practice without it becoming too costly? Van der Wielen thinks it is. First, because for the first time the agricultural, industrial and chemical sectors are working together – and investing millions – in a major project. If they didn’t all see a profit in it, they simply wouldn’t get involved.
Second, the consumer is far more conscious of the sustainability, or harmfulness, of products. That means there’s a market.
And finally, scientists are increasingly understanding how to extract raw materials and energy from agricultural products without getting in the way of food production. It has to do with using all the inedible portions of the plant, sometimes up to ninety percent of it.
Mega-experiments in a megalab must ultimately provide the answer to the question of whether it’s possible to realise an affordable, sustainable economy.
Thijs Westerbeek van Eerten