Job title: Team leader bioprocessing
Company: Bio Base Europe Pilot Plant
Tell us about your education and working life up to now.
I pursued a PhD at Ghent University after obtaining my MSc in bioscience engineering. Thanks to the FWO Flanders (a Belgium public research council) I focused on research in the field of applied biotechnology. From this I presented in numerous international conferences, publications, patents and book chapters. Completing my PhD I joined the Bio Base Europe Pilot Plant (BBEPP) as an R&D project engineer where I currently lead a talented team in the field of industrial biotechnology.
What is your main expertise?
During my PhD I studied enzymatic glycosylation processes, enzyme engineering around the recombinant production and purification of proteins. Now at BBEPP I lead projects on biomass pre-treatment, biocatalysis, (gas) fermentation, downstream purification and green chemistry. In this broad area of industrial biotechnology, the team is focused on process development and scale-up, as well as food-grade applications,
What is your work focused on in the Rehap project?
BBEPP is involved in scaling Rehap's developed processes - the extraction of tannins, lignin and carbohydrates from agroforestry waste - as well as the subsequent fermentation of the obtained carbon source to diols, including their isolation. This latter process highlights the broad spectrum of technology BBEPP offers from biomass pre-treatment over fermentation to ATEX downstream processing.
What are the main challenges you face in this work and how are you meeting these challenges?
In the scale-up the most typical are linked to the broad spectrum of technologies applied. When scaling processes from lab to pilot scale, small challenges encountered in the lab such as purification steps, are exacerbated. For example, when extracting bark, a relatively simple process, it floats on water making it difficult to handle and pump. Also, the piloting phase is used to elevate the performance of any process with industrial equipment and so this is the stage where hurdles are typically encountered. A pro-active mind-set, flexibility and hands-on mentality are must-haves in any piloting environment.
How do you see your work helping the project achieve its main objectives?
Process development at lab scale is a high risk yet low capital-intensive operation. An industrial process on the other hand, typically requires a huge capital investment, but the associated risks from a technological point of view after often limited. Between both phases there is a distinct gap in the innovation chain. During piloting the technological risks are still obvious, while also large capital investments are required. Therefore, the use of shared pilot facilities allows this gap to be bridged in the most efficient way: forging equipment, utilities and in particular skilled and experienced workers. Scaling Rehap processes at BBEPP has allowed in-depth techno-economic assessments, as well as the generation of significant amounts of sample materials.
What impact do you see Rehap having in the future?
Some of the processes developed during the project certainly have potential for commercialisation. However, as is the case for many biotechnological driven innovations, policy makers will have to make sure a suitable environment is created to enable true market penetration.
When scaling processes from lab to pilot scale, small challenges encountered in the lab such as purification steps, are exacerbated
What do you enjoy more about working on a project like Rehap?
Working on the establishment of technology to convert agroforestry waste to building materials is both challenging and inspiring. Moreover, Rehap bundles a large variety of motivated people skilled in different domains. We are also blessed with a great coordinator who makes sure the entire project remains on track.
How would you like to see your work develop after the project ends?
I anticipate the Rehap results to contribute to a solid basis for further research and valorisation. For BBEPP, a continued collaboration with partners from the consortium would be beneficial.