France: Morning in the bioeconomy

May 15, 2023 |

The birds are singing at dawn, across the forest of Compiègne, and it is morning in the bioeconomy here in the heart of agricultural France. 

The rapeseed is in its flashing golden bloom to the east of the forest, next to the green shoots of the sugarbeets now just emerging from the soil, and small lumber and firewood operations can be seen inside the forest edges. 

Yet, just now,  a deep fog has settled over the forest, as has settled these past years over European bioeconomy policy. 

It is thick, this actual fog, but it will thin soon, though we might have rain later in the morning, the cold spring rain that rakes he Channel and Flanders and down from the Pas-de-Calais to here. The soil needs the moisture more than the bioeconomy needs the confusion, so we are happier for the actual fog than the metaphysical Brussels fog. We hope for clear signals from Brussels that they are intent in cleaner skies

It has been getting better in Brussels in recent months, but it has all been focused on mobility. Everyone wants renewable plastics but when it comes to transformative carbon schemes, it is still in the province of fuels.

The EU policy toward renewable chemicals is outlined up in reams of elegant Bruxellese, but in a spirit of Digest brevity, let me sum it up this way.

Dear Renewable Chemicals,
I sure like the lifecycles,
but there ain’t enough soy hulls.

Now, a low-carbon fuels policy is a good thing, but it would be nice some time if the natural small volume, high value markets — where innovation usually focuses — received the support in the early days, that is, chemicals first, fuels later. But we are in a rush, or rather we are in a rush to make a rush that is a rush.

As a result, there are billions of gallons of advanced, low-carbon, renewable fuels facilities under construction or advanced planning all over the world, yet fewer in the heart of France than we would expect, given the incredible technology chops in this region. Man, do Europeans know how to make technology, or what? There’s so much, you could get motion sickness just trying to follow it.

Just to name a few, Topsoe and Axens seem to launch, acquire or deploy tech on an hourly basis. Ten o’clock? Time for a new announce. Back at eleven. Leaf by LeSaffre and Novozymes have set a towering global standard for yeast and enzymes, Clariant’s cellulosic ethanol technology holds sway above the western Romanian landscape, UPM’s wood to renewable diesel technology is candy for those who look longingly at trees for the bioeconomy’s answer to the problems of scale. There’s BTG’s pyrolysis. Global Bioenergies. ARD. Avantium’s bioplastic. Corbion’s algae-based foods. And more consortia than there are creatures in the sea.

The European Union the great workshop of the bioeconomy world. Yes, the EU has deployment at scale, not enough, not near enough. Many to celebrate. 

The story across France

Today, let’s think about just France, just this year. Just to give you an idea.

In January we reported that following the construction of its first PLA (poly-lactic acid) plant in China in 2021, Futerro’s ambition is to set up a new fully integrated biorefinery in the industrial and port area of Port-Jérôme, in the Caux Seine agglomeration (commune of Saint-Jean-de-Folleville), located on the Seine axis between Rouen and Le Havre.

Futerro’s project has annual production capacity of 75,000 metric tons. The project should potentially create 250 direct jobs and 900 jobs in adjacent sectors.

Same month, we reported that TotalEnergies launched its eighteenth biogas production unit in France, which will be the largest in the country with a maximum capacity of 160 gigawatt hours (GWh). Named BioBéarn. it will produce 69 GWh in 2023 and then ramp up progressively to keep pace with the rapidly growing demand for biogas. Think 220,000 metric tons of organic waste 

Same month again, we reported that Arkema has signed a long-term agreement with ENGIE starting on January 1, 2023, for the supply of 300 GWh/year of renewable biomethane in France. This supply agreement of 300 GWh/year of renewable biomethane with ENGIE, and ongoing energy efficiency projects will enable Arkema to further reduce very significantly the carbon footprint of its bio-based high performance Rilsan® polyamide 11 and Pebax® Rnew® elastomers.

There’s been more than project action, there’s been demand increase. We reported earlier this year that French ethanol sales rose 13% to 1.47 million cubic meters compared to 1.30 million cubic meters the year prior. Thanks to the availability of conversion kits and high energy prices that are supported by the ongoing war in Ukraine, with sales likely to increase another 25%, potentially reaching a market share of 8%, double that of 2021.

PILI’s been in the news this year, raising $15.8 million to accelerate commercialization and scale-up of its fermentation-based indigo. They report several million euros of preorders for its biobased dyes and pigments have already been contracted by customers in the textile, ink and paints sectors. The funding was led by Bpifrance through the fund Ecotechnologies, with participation from new investors Famille C Participations and an undisclosed Italy-based privately owned company. Existing investors PSL Innovation Fund of Elaia Partners, SOSV, and the German business angel network also participated.

Moving ahead to April, we reported that Axens acquired a stake in the BioTJet project, the aim of which is to build and operate the largest European Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) production unit using the Fischer-Tropsch process, relying on the BioTfueL technology. This unit will be built in France and will be commissioned by 2027.

Moving into this month, we reported that TotalEnergies Marine Fuels completed its first biofuel bunkering trials in France following the success of similar tests in Singapore last year which led to the commencement of commercial operations.

And back to renewable chemicals, TotalEnergies Corbion and Coexpan announced the launch of a PLA biobased cup using recycled PLA, available in both white and high transparency. 

After completing all tests at Coexpan’s Innotech center, in Madrid, Spain, full validation was achieved for line speeds and output using FFS technology.

Finally, let’s say a word about hydrogen. Earlier, we reported that TotalEnergies and Air Liquide announce their decision to create an equally owned joint venture to develop a network of hydrogen stations, geared towards heavy duty vehicles on major European road corridors. This initiative will help facilitate access to hydrogen, enabling the development of its use for goods transportation and further strengthening the hydrogen sector.

The partners aim to deploy more than 100 hydrogen stations on major European roads – in France, Benelux and Germany – in the coming years. These stations, under the TotalEnergies brand, will be located on major strategic corridors.

The Bottom Line

It’s moving faster in France. Not as fast as it needs to, but the work of many years by all these consortia has not been in vain. What does the EU need now? SAF, SAF, SAF, they’ll tell you, and SAF they need. Renewable diesel, too. Hydrogen for green chemistry and eFuels. And might we add methanol.

The feedstocks are there in plenty. What’s been missing is not exactly the will, or the means, but rather an interest in addressing the broader financing picture for the bioeconomy. Insurance, risk-mitigation, hedging, futures contracts. The modern world is said to be built on the pillar of technology but in fact it is built on the pillar of finance. 

What can be financed will be built., what cannot, will not. Simple as that. Too much EU activity has been based on heroic contributions of equity by governments and industrial operators and customers. Far too much. Time for debt, and debt doesn’t arise from a high morning fog but in the clear light of day. To clear the skies, we’ll need clear skies, and certainty is the instrument that minimizes the risk. More needed.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Category: Top Stories

Thank you for visting the Digest.