University of Twente researcher Boelo Schuur works closely with the industry on green solutions for separation processes, and his approaches make him a pioneer in his field. Both business partners and governmental institutions have recognised the importance of his work. He was recently awarded over half a million euros from the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs in response to a TKI (Top Consortia for Knowledge and Innovation) application.
With our society undergoing an energy transition, the chemical sector has an important role to play because it currently accounts for around ten percent of the Netherlands’ total CO2 emissions. Half of these emissions are caused by separation processes. ‘It’s essential that we look for more sustainable separation techniques,’ says Schuur. ‘On the one hand, I’m working on replacing existing processes with processes that are more energy-efficient, and on the other hand we’re focusing on biorefinery techniques to replace existing production processes that still require petroleum as an input.’
Conventional separation processes in the chemical industry are often based on distillation: the process of separating a mixture of substances by making use of their different boiling points. This is a powerful technology, but it is not always energy-efficient and not always technically possible in biorefineries.
Schuur cites the paper industry as an example of bio-refining, a sector that he is working closely with. ‘In existing paper mills, lignin – a substance found in the cell walls of plants and trees, which acts as the cement between the fibres – is extracted and burned. The energy that is released during combustion is more than enough to run the factory. In fact, it’s even possible to heat nearby towns using a network of pipes. However, this form of solvent regeneration does not provide any further added value. That’s a pity. If you could derive enough energy from other sustainable sources to provide energy for the factory, you could make valuable products from that lignin. And because the lignin would no longer be burned, CO2 emissions would also be reduced. Lignin can be used as a raw material in the chemical industry – to manufacture bioplastic or other new chemicals, for example. So it would open up a whole new category of products as a by-product of paper production. But to do that, you would need to be able to extract the lignin from the solvent, without burning it. That’s what I'm working on.’
Boelo Schuur has received funding worth €525,000 from the Dutch government for a TKI project entitled ‘Processes for the Industrial Application of Natural Deep Eutectic Solvents’. The TKI projects are funded jointly by industry and government, and the university works closely with partners from the industry (in this example the paper industry, but in other examples with chemical industries) and other research institutes.
In the future, Schuur hopes to receive more funding for research into plant-based chemicals. Biomass will need to replace petroleum as our main raw material. ‘Almost everything we see around us today is still made from oil. We need to change that. We will need to derive our raw materials directly from nature, without having to wait millions of years for them to become fossils. That’s an essential part of making our economy more sustainable, because if we use plants as raw materials for industry, those plants already have absorbed CO2 from the atmosphere while they were growing. By using solar energy for energy applications and raw materials derived from biomass, we can make real progress towards sustainability. One of the most important products that we will be making from biomass in the future is plastic. We already have some very good examples, like polylactic acid and polyethylene furanoate (PEF), a replacement for PET, of which soft drink bottles are made from.’
‘Separation techniques are essential to the development of new raw materials derived from biomass. I often work with solvents, and it’s important that those solvents can also be regenerated. Regeneration is a subject that is sometimes forgotten about. It’s a part of the process that requires energy but it’s essential in order to make a process truly sustainable. And that’s the reason I’m doing so much work on it.’
Schuur has a close partnership with the industry. ‘We often hear about the social impact of universities, and what I notice is that businesses involved in our partnerships see a clear division of roles between fundamental research done by us and application-oriented work they do. They come to us for the fundamental research, and they also point us towards fundamental research in areas that they can then take forward into the applied phase. This kind of collaboration means that the knowledge we produce really does get used, maximizing our social impact.’
Schuur is closely involved in teaching within his discipline at the University of Twente. He teaches the Advanced Molecular Separations course within the Master’s programme in Chemical Engineering, in which he has the students compare different separation techniques based on their energy-efficiency at the process level. ‘I also give a lecture on sustainable industrial chemistry for the Bachelor’s in Chemical Science and Engineering. I show the students all the many different aspects of sustainability. Colleagues from our BMS gamma faculty are also involved. They look at the social aspects of sustainability. We teach students to assess a production process in terms of both the social and ecological impact. That might be – for example – the production of biodiesel from jatropha nuts in Indonesia. We also have to ask ourselves what that means for the people living there. It’s an interesting area.’