“We need more investment in pilot installations like Pillar II”

Written by Tine Schaerlaekens

Catalisti was invited to the inauguration of the Pillar II pilot plant at VITO's in Mol, a project that was supported with Moonshot-funding through a Later Stage Innovation project (LSI). The opening was combined with the official signing of the renewed management agreement between the Flemish government and VITO, in the presence of Flemish minister of Innovation Jo Brouns. Catalisti director Tine Schaerlaekens was invited to speak at the event and sketched the broader context of different research and innovation programs, involving more than 20 companies, that led to the Pillar II project and placing Flanders in the forefront of developing lignin as a viable replacement for oil-based chemistry. You can read the remarks here. 

Catalisti director Tine Schaerlaekens at Vito's Pillar II inauguration.

Dear Minister, Madam Governor,
Dear Chairman and CEO of VITO,
Dear attendees,

I would like to start with a heartfelt thank you for inviting Catalisti to your event today. This provides an excellent opportunity to demonstrate the importance of collaboration between different partner organisations in the innovation ecosystem in Flanders. As the new director of Catalisti, I am delighted to be able to participate today.

I do not need to convince you that innovation is crucial, for our society and our economy in general, and in particular also for our chemical industry. Innovation is necessary for maintaining the competitiveness of our companies and also for the transition to greater sustainability. These two are inextricably linked. Only with competitive companies fully committed to sustainability, can we create lasting prosperity. 

As a neutral partner and catalyst in the innovation ecosystem of chemistry and plastics in Flanders, Catalisti connects companies, knowledge institutions and governments in this transition to a competitive and sustainable industry. 

We do this by setting up multi-partner collaborations between companies and knowledge institutions. The excellent research in the broad field of chemistry and plastics that is present at Flemish universities, Strategic Research Centres including VITO and other research institutes, can thus find its way more easily to implementation at companies and hence to economic valorisation.

As Catalisti, like the other spearhead clusters, we work at the interface between economic competitiveness on the one hand and societal challenges on the other.

The societal challenges we can have an effect on, are the climate transition, the transition to a circular economy and resource security. To have a significant impact, we want to engage in a more transformative innovation policy. That means going more strategic, more holistic, looking at what is still needed on top of research & development to realise the transition. For us, this is first and foremost about supporting pilot and demonstration projects, I'll come back to that in a moment, but in addition, it is also about access to sufficient and affordable low-carbon energy, investment in infrastructure such as pipelines, and access to talent.

Catalisti's innovation agenda, drawn up together with our stakeholders, is entirely directed at the sustainable transition of value chains by focusing on four pillars: renewable chemicals, circularity and resource efficiency, process intensification and transformation, and the development of advanced sustainable products. 

One of the important topics within the renewable chemicals pillar, is the development of bio-based aromatics or bio-aromatics. Aromatics are an important class of chemical molecules that, when we started working on them together with VITO and with KULeuven in 2015, were still largely fossil-based.

In that first project, ARBOREF, new conversions and new separation processes were developed that allowed aromatic compounds to be produced from wood, a raw material rich in lignocellulose. Since that first project, together we have built a portfolio of a total of 9 Catalisti and Moonshot projects of our own on this topic, which in turn led to the launch of at least as many projects within other support programmes including European funding. We have thus created significant leverage on Flemish resources. In total, this has led to the launch of collaborations with at least 20 different companies involved in these developments across the value chain.

It is therefore great to see how the focused and sustained commitment to this topic has resulted in the construction of unique pilot infrastructure in Flanders, including here at VITO Lignovalue and its extension PILLAR II.

This trajectory also reveals two challenges inherent in innovation, which certainly cannot be underestimated for innovation in chemistry: 

  • Firstly, there is the long timeline of innovation: between the first breakthrough in basic research and the demonstration of the technology on a sufficiently large scale, 10 years can easily pass. 
  • Secondly, there is the need for investment in pilot infrastructure. In chemical research, at some point, you have to get out of the lab to scale up, and then we are promptly talking about a scale of 100s of litres or kilos. For that, you need infrastructure.

With the Moonshot Later Stage Innovation or LSI projects, like PILLAR II, we have found an instrument to support an initial upscaling at the knowledge institutions. Process parameters need to be tested at a relevant scale and sufficiently large quantities of product have to be produced in order for companies to be able to test it in their own applications. 

In addition, we also see a need to support pilot and demonstration projects at companies, especially for realising the big leaps in climate transition, which are high-risk projects.

Together with sector federation essenscia, we argue in the context of the "Klimaatsprong" for the support of these types of projects, and we dare to count on this plea being picked up by the government. For us, this will be an important tool we need to move towards that transformative innovation policy, and, as a result, effective impact on the transition.

I look forward to exploring the PILLAR II infrastructure with you soon and hope to support many more such pilot infrastructures with the Moonshot programme in the years to come.

Some photographic impressions from the inauguration at VITO in Mol: