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Driving Change with Green Chemistry and Digitalisation

The videos of the event can be viewed on YouTube.

The European Union’s goal of being climate neutral by 2050 requires a change in our society and sustainable economic growth. This includes transitioning to a sustainable and circular industry. The chemical industry is of central importance in this context, as it is a key component in almost all value chains. In Europe, the chemical industry is one of the most energy-intensive industries, while at the same time generating a stable, high turnover. The same picture is seen in NRW, where the chemical industry provides a strong foundation for related industries. Therefore, the chemical sector is a good starting point when it comes to increasing sustainability across industries.

Left: Dr Jasmin Schubert from BIO.NRW.eco opened the event.
Right: Dr Christian Schwarz presents Numaferm's innovative peptide production.

How can this be achieved? To address this question, BIO.NRW.eco invited experts and stakeholders to take part in the webinar “Driving Change – How Green Chemistry and Digitalisation lead the way to a Sustainable Economy”, which was organised as a local event as part of the EU Industry Week 2021. On 18 and 19 March, scientists, young entrepreneurs, and representatives of large companies discussed the green transition.

The event made it clear that innovations and technological developments are crucial for realising the green change. One aspect of this are new and innovative production processes. Just how versatile these processes can be was illustrated by three concepts in the very first session. Dr. Christian Schwarz is breaking new ground in peptide production. The innovative biotechnological process used in his company NUMAFERM can reduce costs and the carbon footprint by more than 90 % compared to conventional chemical processes. ESy-Labs is pursuing a completely different approach. Prof. Siegfried Waldvogel presented the process of electroorganic synthesis that ESy-Labs uses to produce synthetic fuels, fine chemicals, or building blocks for the pharmaceutical industry. The third process presented was b.fab’s platform technology, which combines electrochemistry and biotechnology. Dr. Frank Kensy, CEO of b.fab, described how CO2 can be used in the process of artificial photosynthesis to produce proteins and platform chemicals.

Alternative feedstocks were a topic in the session “Sustainable ingredients for consumer products”, in which Juan Medina explained his vision of a circular coffee value chain. His start-up Kaffee Bueno uses coffee waste and by-products to produce valuable ingredients for cosmetics, personal care, and food products. Following this example, biotechnological processes can be expected to enable many new applications in the future and make new raw material sources accessible. Agnes Borg of EuropaBio expects a boost in the use of biotechnology and bio-based raw materials in industry. She predicts a business potential of 7.7 trillion dollars by 2030.

The panel discussion with Dr Frank Kensy, John Fox, Mesbah Sabur and the moderator Michael Carus (from left to right)
was broadcast live from a TV studio.

The role of synthetic biology should not be underestimated in this transformation. Specialised molecules have great potential for the future, as Prof. Ilka Axmann of Heinrich-Heine University Düsseldorf explained. Dr. Frank Kensy pointed out that thanks to synthetic biology, there are hardly any limits to the range of products that can be produced.

Another important tool for the transformation towards a sustainable and circular economy is digitalization. Digital processes can help make industrial processes more efficient and accelerate research and development. However, digitalisation can also ensure transparency within the circular economy, for example by allowing the traceability of raw materials and products. The startup Circularise is also pursuing this approach. Together with John Fox from Covestro, Circularise founder Mesbah Sabur presented Digital Material Tracing, where blockchain technology and digital twins ensure the traceability of raw materials in products.

Dr Ricardo Gent (top left), Dr Julia Reinermann (top right), Prof. Dr Ilka Axmann (bottom left) and Dr Susanne Zibek 
(bottom right) took part in the online panel discussion.

In addition to technical developments, the acceptance of all stakeholders involved, including consumers, is crucial to support and drive this change process. Dr. Julia Reinermann from Ruhr University Bochum and FernUniversität Hagen presented the consumer perspective and described various projects to involve consumers and improve communication. Agnes Borg summarised that there is a growing awareness among consumers and an increasing demand for sustainable products. This view was also shared by Dr. Susanne Zibek of Fraunhofer IGB, who conducts research on biosurfactants. However, she also pointed out that the price of bio-based products is still higher than comparable products at present and that this could influence consumer perception and acceptance. However, Agnes Borg and Claire Skentelbery of EuropaBio see a positive development in the EU, with ambitions to move towards green change, e.g. through the “Green Recovery” programme following the COVID-19 pandemic. Industry plays an important role in driving the solutions. However, it is very important that policy makers set the right framework for this.

The transition to a green chemical industry is a major challenge, but also an opportunity to create a strong and sustainable Europe.

We would like to thank all speakers and participants who enriched this event with their contributions. Special thanks go to our partners EuropaBio, KI.NRW, CLIB, DIB and BIO Clustermanagement NRW GmbH for their excellent support.