By Dr Sarah Hickingbottom
General Manager for New Product Development and Stakeholder Relations, Circa Group
For the European Union to meet the climate and biodiversity targets set out in the European Green Deal, it needs bold action. Sustainable, renewable and circular innovations need to be brought to market quickly. The EU is delivering this kind of boldness with its public private partnerships (PPPs), the Bio-based Industries and Circular Bio-based Europe Joint Undertakings (BBI JU and CBE JU), which are supporting, for example, the commercialisation of CyreneTM – Circa Group’s novel, non-toxic and high performing solvent derived in two steps from waste cellulosic biomass.
As detailed in CIJ’s March issue1, the EU has a multi-layered approach to building renewable, sustainable supply chains. The CBE JU is one critical component of this strategy which is to effectively ‘jump-start’ the commercialisation investment engine needed to build a new generation of ‘future-proofed’ chemical plants. The assumption is that once the engine is switched on and running, the public sector can retreat and let industry drive further investment.
The private arm of the CBE JU PPP, and its predecessor the BBI JU, is represented by the Bio-based Industries Consortium (BIC) with members from industry, SMEs, clusters and universities. The €3.7 billion BBI JU was part of Horizon 2020 with the CBE JU playing a comparable role within the Horizon Europe framework (with the UK as an Associate country). Between 2014-2020, the BBI JU funded in excess of 120 projects and between 2021-2027 and the CBE JU intends to do the same.
It’s a major, long-term undertaking driven by a circular bioeconomy vision – first conceived a decade ago with the BBI JU – focused on 2050. A vision which the EU recognises we cannot shy away from if we are to address the resource, climate and sustainability overshoots we live with today. The chemical industry plays a key role in investing in ‘green’ innovation and, whilst industry has been investing and creating change, the impact has not been large enough or fast enough.
To catalyse bioeconomy innovation, in 2014 the BBI JU (and, in 2021, the CBE JU) set about mobilising a fragmented sector, using public money to attract private investment, cementing strong industry collaborations with science and generating an innovation pipeline which – where commercially viable – will be supported as Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs) increase from lab to commercial scale.
The PPPs are de-risking investment for an emerging sector where traditional financing is failing to prove sufficient, particularly for capital-intensive demonstration-scale and commercial-scale flagship projects. The dozen flagship projects funded to date are each first-of-a-kind-in-Europe biorefineries at commercial scale. Each has a high replicability potential for further, larger plants to be built across the continent leveraging regional feedstocks, supply chains, workforces and offtake markets. Additionally, many of these flagships have graduated from earlier research and/or demonstration scale projects illustrating the BBI/CBE commitment to seeding industrial scale innovation.
ReSolute is one of these flagship projects. Led by Circa Sustainable Chemicals BV – part of Circa Group AS – the building of the ReSolute cellulosics-to-chemicals plant will realise over a decade of lab, pilot and demonstration scale R&D investment and ambition. The €11.6 million grant will fund an 11 partner consortium to manufacture the novel, non-toxic solvent CyreneTM from waste cellulosic feedstocks. Circa has achieved this new, sustainable value chain by developing a proprietary 1-step catalytic process to produce the bio-based building block levoglucosenone (LGO) before a second step generates CyreneTM.
The biorefinery will be built in France and Circa envisages it as the first of many plants with notably larger scales. Whilst the EU grant does not cover 100% of the capital expenditure required to construct the 1,000 mtpa CyreneTM plant, it has supported Circa in building the strong platform it needs from which to raise the remaining capital. Circa Group went to the financial markets in March 2021 and successfully raised the equivalent of €56 million and listed on the Euronext Growth stock exchange in Oslo.
Collaboratively with partners such as the University of York’s Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence, Circa has developed an industrial solvent not confined by yesterday’s thinking. CyreneTM has a unique property set, including viscosity, surface tension and polarities, and is a technical replacement for dipolar aprotic solvents that are under regulatory pressure for their toxicity, i.e. NMP, DMF, DCM. Yet despite these obvious drivers, the chemical industry barriers-to-entry remain significant and require collaboration, investment and patience to overcome. To date, Circa has worked with over 1,000 companies and researchers globally to develop application markets and the versatile technical properties of CyreneTM continue to be demonstrated.
CyreneTM is the first of many products Circa intends to develop from the previously inaccessible platform chemical LGO. It can be derivatised into a range of advanced materials with applications across solvents, specialty polymers, flavours & fragrances, pharmaceuticals, agrochemical actives and beyond. The LGO platform will either produce materials capable of out-performing traditional counterparts or ‘drop-ins’, prized for their chirality and complex structures, manufactured more economically in fewer, safer steps.
SMEs are at the heart of flagships, but to ensure value chains and downstream markets will be robust and economically viable, industry plays a fundamental role. For example, ReSolute partners include Huntsman, Talga and Merck. The other flagships include in their consortia Lego, Cargill, Henkel, Tereos, Carlsberg, Sudzucker and Nestle. The projects are located across Europe and, along with Circa’s LGO/CyreneTM, chemicals produced (or soon to be) include carboxylic acids (from crop residues), lactic acid/PLA (from dairy waste streams), bioethanol (from cellulosics) and novel bio-based plastics (from crop residues).
But why is the CBE JU needed to continue the work of the BBI JU? Although progress has been made, there is much left to do to build an industrial ecosystem driven by circular and sustainability principles. The quality and quantity of new chemical innovation being spearheaded by SMEs yet struggling to attract investment for first-of-a-kind biorefineries remains a challenge. Public support – in collaboration with private industry – is still needed to de-risk large capital expenditure and support SMEs, like Circa, in attracting private investment.
And for us as chemical innovators? We’ve built an industry on carbon but today we can access the oxygen in biomass. Combined with biotechnology and advanced manufacturing, we can imagine and create the ideal solvent, catalyst, reaction. And for the next seven years we have access to an ambitious, open-minded, commercially-driven funding framework which is building sustainable supply chains using biomass. This funding framework works on collaboration, actively favours start-ups/SMEs and has the input of innovative multinationals, universities and R&D institutes. The CBE JU is for us all to engage with. It will support your sustainable and circular ambitions as we accelerate the commercialisation and adoption of the chemical supply chains we need tomorrow.
If you are looking to work with green solvents or LGO derivatives, please contact me: