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Follow the winner 2021: Panos Kouris about Lignin, sustainable fuel of the future

Panos Kouris is the winner of the 2021 Marc Cornelissen Brightlands Award. He is the co-founder of Vertoro, a company based at Brightlands Chemelot Campus, which makes the waste material lignin suitable for use as a raw material for plastics and as a biofuel. We asked the winner six questions about his work, his ambitions and - of course - how the cash prize associated with the award will be spent.

The Marc Cornelissen Brightlands Award is an homage to the sustainability pioneer Marc Cornelissen who perished in an accident in 2015. What does this award mean to you?

“Our goal with Vertoro is to contribute to the green revolution, stop climate change and make the world more sustainable. This means that an alternative to fossil raw materials for the production of fuel and plastics is a necessity. Lignin is what remains of wood as a residual product during the production of paper, for example, and it’s also found in waste from agricultural products. The concept is simple; we convert these lignin-rich raw materials into liquid oil. This biological, green oil is ready to use as a raw material for sustainable chemicals, materials and fuels. This concept fits in seamlessly with the ideals of Marc Cornelissen and the foundation that uses the award to encourage entrepreneurs and organizations to continue their sustainable innovations. It goes without saying that we are proud to have won the award.”

Vertoro is a young company that was only founded in 2017. Can you tell us a bit more about how you got started?

“I studied chemical engineering at the University of Patras in my home country, Greece, and then got my master’s at TU Eindhoven. I started my PhD research with Professor Hensen’s research group, studying lignin and how lignin oil can be used as a substitute for fossil fuel. Together with Dr. Michael Boot, in 2017 we decided to apply our scientific knowledge and experience to our own company, and Vertoro was born.”

How did you end up at Brightlands Chemelot Campus?

“The knowledge institute InSciTe at the Brightlands campus supported my doctoral research, so Vertoro actually started out at the campus as a spin-off of several InSciTe pilot projects. We have completed several successful pilot trials with different types of lignin-rich material. Chemelot and Brightlands Chemelot Campus are also home to many sustainable pioneers and various major players, including SABIC. We actually envisage the large oil companies in particular as becoming potential buyers of lignin oil. They will ultimately need to use it in their processes or help us scale up quickly. We want to get the industry involved in the energy transition and are also firm believers in cooperation and their experience.”

This all still seems a long way off.

“It’s actually not when you consider that we have demonstrated in just three years that lignin is suitable for converting to bio-fuel and as a raw material for biomaterials. There is also a lot of interest, including from large oil companies like Shell. Vertoro was one of the finalists of the 2021 New Energy Challenge contest which was supported by Shell, which says a lot. They too are looking for alternatives to fossil fuel. Tests have already been conducted with lignin-based bio-oil in marine engines. The maritime sector accounts for five per cent of all oil consumption and is responsible for the emission of so many undesirable substances such as heavy metals and tar. Lignin does result in the release of CO2, but the combustion process is much cleaner. Major companies in the maritime sector are also looking for sustainable solutions. They are looking for the fuels of the future. We see huge potential.”

But then it would have to be scaled up. Vertoro is currently still working with InSciTe’s pilot plant.

“We hope to build our own pilot plant at Brightlands Chemelot Campus this year. The design is finished, and now we’re working on the financing. We want this demo plant to show that it’s possible to build a profitable business model with lignin and that we are trying to solve all of the technical challenges. Scaling up to mature production facilities after this isn’t that difficult. Lignin can start to play a significant role very quickly.”

You have such high ambitions; this will certainly involve major investments. Will the award’s cash prize of 35,000 Euros help defray these costs?

“We plan to use most of the prize money to set up a sustainability experience center for the younger generations. Science helps society solve major problems such as climate change. We can’t make the world sustainable on our own; we need to join forces. There is currently no better place than Chemelot: Europe’s first circular hub. We also want to make a contribution to this. This is where we feel at home and this is where we want to continue to grow. There are twelve of us now, but I’m sure this number will grow.”