The 8th NRW PhD Day took place in Neuss on 25 October 2023 with around 70 participants. Doctoral students from all over NRW from a wide range of disciplines took the opportunity to exchange ideas and network, both with the speakers and among each other. The speakers gave very realistic reports on the challenges and obstacles in the transformation from fossil to bio-based raw materials. Different perspectives and assessments regarding the production, availability and utilisation of biomass became clear.
After a welcoming address by Margarete Beye from the Ministry of Culture and Science of North Rhine-Westphalia, the first two presentations of the day focussed on biomass production and distribution. Prof Ralf Pude (INRES Renewable Resources, University of Bonn) gave an impressive presentation on the potential of perennial plants for biomass production and the various options for utilising the entire plant, while at the same time taking ecological and landscape design aspects into account. It became clear that it has taken a very long time to establish such "multiple-use" plants in cultivation and utilisation. Marina Billinger from LEROMA showed that the use of any available biomass is necessary for a circular economy free of residual materials, and her company provides a B2B platform that connects available "residual" biomass from the food industry to potential users. The importance of logistics and data management for the bioeconomy became clear here.
The second session featured Dr. Thomas Vössing from Covestro and Dr. Salvatore La China from the start-up BIOWEG, two speakers from very different companies in polymer production. Thomas Vössing used the example of the aniline production process to illustrate the switch from crude oil to sugar as a starting substrate and the associated challenges. He made clear that not only the starting material, but also the process design, the avoidance of residues, recycling and the use of renewable energies for the sometimes very energy-intensive processes play a key role in the transformation of large chemical companies towards CO2 neutrality. Salvatore La China then reported on the development of new polymers based on cellulose, which are intended to replace microplastics in a wide variety of applications. So this was not about replacing fossil-based raw materials with bio-based raw materials for an established process, but of developing completely new products in which recyclability and waste avoidance are considered from the outset.
In the last session, Dr. Harald Ruijssenaars from Corbion used the example of the production of various new bio-based plastics from lactic acid to show which process steps are critical for economic efficiency. It also became clear how much profitability is a influenced by raw material prices, specifically sugar compared to crude oil. Well-established manufacturing processes based on other bio-based monomers such as succinate have not yet been able to succeed on the market. Ronja Hermanns from Carbon Minds then highlighted the fact that while the direct emissions of the manufacturing process have a substantial influence when determining the carbon footprint of the production of chemicals, the "hidden" elements such as the production of the starting materials and the associated manufacturing, processing, transport, waste and energy costs must also be included. Such calculations require a large database of the processes involved. This is made more difficult by strong local influences. It makes a considerable difference in which country the source biomass was produced and processed, for example.
In the concluding panel discussion, the speakers discussed quite controversially whether the available biomass is sufficient for all planned and desirable applications. The need for political guidelines on the one hand and legal restrictions on the other was also addressed. For example, bans on microplastics in cosmetics open up the markets for new bio-based products.
During the breaks, the doctoral students had ample opportunity to network with each other, talk to the speakers and ask questions about the processes and innovations presented as well as about personal experiences and career paths and perspectives.The NRW Doctoral Candidates' Day thus achieved its goal once again this year.
Photos: Forschungszentrum Jülich