Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research is launching a large-scale European project in collaboration with Cosun (coordinating partner) and ten businesses from the Netherlands and abroad to extract more value from sugar beet pulp. After undergoing biorefinery and other conversion processes, this residue from the common sugar beet, which is rich in cellulose and special carbohydrates, can be deployed in ambitious applications for detergents, personal care products, paints and coatings, composite materials and quality plastics.

Pulp2Value, one of two European demonstration projects being supported by the European Biobased Industries Consortium, was launched on July 1, 2015. It has been awarded a grant of more than 6 million euros.

Jacco van Haveren, programme manager of biobased chemicals at Wageningen UR explains, "The aim is to extract much more value from sugar beet pulp – between 20 and 50 times more. We believe we can capitalize economically on around 65 percent of the pulp by applying biorefinery and conversion technologies. This is an immensely interesting project because it will energize value creation and volume sales of the pulp, which are vitally important for the future."

The project is an interesting continuation and extension of the work Food & Biobased Research has been doing in partnership with Cosun in recent years.

Fresh momentum for Dutch businesses

Food & Biobased Research is working on this project in collaboration with Cosun and various kinds of large and small businesses from the Netherlands and abroad, including sugar beet suppliers and processors, and businesses that are interested in using the high-quality components from sugar beet pulp in applications.

Gert de Raaff, Director of New Business and member of the Royal Cosun board says, "The strong support from the European Biobased Industries Consortium means that we can implement the project more quickly with our partners and demonstrate the economic and technical feasibility in the coming years. The EU commitment will allow us to make extra investments in knowledge and installations and shorten the time-to-market. This, in turn, will improve the potential for building successful new biobased value chains."

Development of knowledge and technology

The academic branch of Wageningen UR is also involved in the project. The Human Nutrition Department will be looking into ways of enhancing the economic value of one of the pulp components as a food ingredient. Food & Biobased Research is focusing specifically on knowledge development for bio-based components. Van Haveren continues,

"We will characterise the microcellulose fibres (MCF) from sugar beet pulp with sophisticated analytical tools so that we can explore the application possibilities for personal care products, paint and coatings, and composite materials, and gain a clear understanding of the workings of the MCF. We will look into ways of converting the D-galacturonic acid from sugar beet and explore D-galacturonic acid derivatives which will ultimately serve as building blocks for polymer products, such as high-quality PET-like materials."

Together with Cosun and the other businesses, Food & Biobased Research will optimise the biorefinery process.

Van Haveren concludes, "We hope eventually to work on a scaled-up demonstration bio-refinery plant – to be installed at Cosun – for sugar beet pulp on a scale of 100 and 1,000 tons."

Huge potential for Europe

Sugar beet is an important crop not only for the Dutch agricultural sector, but also for many other European countries. The sugar-rich green material is now used mainly in foodstuffs and animal feed, but the lifting of the sugar quota in 2017 will open up opportunities for a whole range of potential applications in chemicals and materials. Cosun currently turns out approximately one million tons of sugar beet pulp a year as a by-product of the sugar production. Around 20 million tons of sugar beet pulp are produced in Europe annually. Thanks to bio-refinery technologies, sugars can now be extracted for industrial applications as well as for foodstuffs and animal feed. These different applications would not compete with each other.

On balance, Europe is still importing a lot of sugar (around 10 percent of its needs). In the future, this could change to a net export position. The climate in North-West Europe is ideal for growing sugar beet. Wageningen UR estimates on the basis of model calculations that there is scope to increase the sugar beet acreage by 10 percent  in Europe and 14 percent  in the Netherlands.