Vertoro has been founded by doctoral candidate Panos Kouris and TU/e Fellow Michael Boot, whose earlier work at TU/e includes the development of CyclOx - a diesel additive that reduces soot emissions. Professor and Dean of Chemical Engineering and Chemistry Emiel Hensen is the startup's science advisor. A project run by Chemelot InSciTe provided the impetus for the startup, which was launched in 2017.
Dannie van Osch, a part-time postdoc at Chemical Engineering and Chemistry, the department where he gained his doctorate, is Vertoro's Chief Business Officer. He explains that until now lignin has been regarded as a waste product - good for burning but little else - which is a missed opportunity given that lignin contains many 'aromatic molecules', necessary raw materials in chemicals. “These aromatics are currently being extracted from raw petroleum because natural products containing them are few and far between.”
Converting lignin directly into chemicals is not a profitable business, Van Osch explains. “But we have now developed a process enabling an intermediary step: the production of oil with a very high lignin content. And in this form the lignin becomes economically interesting.” This raw lignin oil can be produced from the lignin powder left over as waste in paper mills and in the production of bio-ethanol. “It's actually a very simple procedure, comparable to making a cup of espresso; it is a question of dissolving the material in the right solvent and heating it up to about 200 degrees for half an hour.”
In addition, Vertoro (Spanish for ‘green gold’) is also keen to produce raw lignin oil from woody biomass. “This can be achieved by adding an acid. We've already demonstrated this in the lab. This produces a mixture of cellulose, lignin and sugars from which we can quite easily produce lignin oil.” This raw lignin oil can then be used as a raw material in both chemicals and biomaterials. It can also serve as a CO2-neutral fuel. “As far as we are concerned, this is not the most sustainable application, but it may well be that we have to produce lignin oil as a fuel in order to scale up the process, which is necessary to reach profitability.”
In the new pilot plant, part of what is known as a ‘Multipurpose Pilot Plant’ on the site of Brightlands Chemelot Campus, some 150 liters of oil can be produced daily from 30 kilos of sawdust, with the end product containing seven to eight kilos of lignin. “As far as we know, we'll be the first in the world doing this on this scale,” says Van Osch. “And this coming fall we have plans for a larger installation in Sweden with our partner Sekab. They are currently supplying the sawdust for the pilot plant. They produce ethanol from cellulose, a byproduct of our process, and so they are interested in extracting both lignin oil and ethanol from sawdust.”
The festive opening was originally scheduled for earlier this year but the corona crisis scuppered that plan. Nevertheless, as Van Osch explains, they have been carrying out tests in recent months. Somewhat reduced in scope, the festivities will now be held on June 29th, he says. “Our planned panel discussion will be held online and a short film will provide a virtual tour. We will be able to show our one hundred and fifty guests remotely the installations we are using.”