EU puts $20m into building a sugarbeet biorefinery to make organic acids

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With the pursuit of carbon neutrality still looming large over political and corporate agendas, companies across Europe have been searching for new ways to unplug their production lines from petroleum-based products. In food and farming, these products can be hard to replace — cheap and versatile petrol-derived chemicals still find their way into all sorts of ingredients for flavours, fragrances, preservatives, cosmetics, animal nutrition and pharmaceuticals.

Afyren CEO Nicolas Sordet, however, has been spending the last decade working on fermentation technology, and believes that less carbon intensive replacements can ultimately be found through refining large amounts of sugar beet waste streams to create valuable acidic biomolecules instead.

His firm has uncovered what he calls “a family of seven different acids” that are useful to food and fragrances, and which could all be created through fermentation of biological byproducts rather than from current methods of petrochemical extraction. His method would rely, Sordet tells AFN by phone, on “circular bioeconomy principles.”

Beeting the system

Last Thursday, this alternative vision of Sordet gained a major green light from the European Union. The building of a flagship biorefinery along these lines will now be supported by the European Commission and the public-private Bio Based Industry Joint Undertaking (BBI-JU) — who will fork out €20 million in the hopes of seeing this facility up and running by 2022.

Not all of this will land in the pockets of Afyren. In fact, it will head to with a consortium of several companies under the unifying banner of AFTER-BIOCHEM. In case any acronym-insatiable readers are curious what that stands for, it is short for “Anaerobic Fermentation & EsteRification of BIOmass for producing fine CHEMicals.” And if that was not already too much of a chewy mouthful of snails, it will be operated and coordinated by Afyren NEOXY, an Afyren affiliate company, co-invested with SPI fund from Bpifrance. Jean Saint-Donat, who is CEO of Afyren NEOXY, will oversee the overall operations.

Political sweeteners

There is a clear political slant in the funding; bringing jobs to an economically de-industrialised area of northeastern France, for starters, as well as cranking up the environmental and financial sustainability of sugar beet by turning its by-products into high-added-value products. The plant installation within the chemical platform sited at Carling Saint-Avold, and foresees “50+ direct jobs and up to 200 indirect jobs” in manufacturing, construction, and engineering. Additionally, the team behind the project will study if the project could be duplicated in other parts of Europe or elsewhere round the world.

As a consortium, AFTER-BIOCHEM brings together at different stages of the value chain teams of 3 SMEs, 8 large companies and 1 innovation cluster from 5 European countries. Among them are: Celanese Europe, Firmenich, IAR le Pôle de Bioéconomie français — Kemin Europe, Omya International, PNO Consultants, Sphera, Sudzucker, Suez, and Technip FMP.


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