To be armed for the challenges of the coming decades, the Flemish government has firmly chosen to embrace sustainable innovation. This is evident in the new management agreement signed today by Flemish Minister of Economy, Innovation, Employment, Social Economy, and Agriculture, Jo Brouns, Ingrid Vanden Berghe, Chair of the Board of Directors of VITO, and Inge Neven, CEO of VITO. Minister Brouns announced an initial funding of 8 million euros for the operations and research within VITO. The signing was accompanied by a visit to the fully operational settings of LignoValue and Pillar II, the first and only pilot line of bio-aromatics from lignin in Europe.

The agreement clearly outlines the guidelines for VITO in the coming years. The Flemish government provides an annual basic endowment of 63 million euros, an increase of 8 million compared to the previous management agreement. Additionally, in 2024, it invests 10 million euros in the new flagship lab building, Earth. Furthermore, the Flemish government will invest an additional 6 million euros this year in pilot lines and living labs.

LignoValue and PillarII are excellent examples of pilot lines where VITO, co-initiator of Biorizon, takes the lead at the European level. While fossil petroleum seems indispensable in certain production processes, VITO starts from lignin. Lignin provides a valuable alternative for the production of aromatic compounds, replacing the currently used petroleum-based chemical building blocks. To produce these lignin-based building blocks, VITO has developed a technology platform demonstrated in the pilot infrastructure at the VITO Sustainability Park.

Lignin-based building blocks

The two-step process begins in the PILLAR II unit where the lignin powder is dissolved by mixing it with a solvent. This lignin-in-solvent solution then goes to the LignoValue Pilot unit, where a catalytic reactor is present. In this reactor, the lignin is broken down into the final aromatic building blocks under high pressure and temperature.

With the LignoValue and PILLAR II units, VITO will further develop this process by demonstrating it at an industrially relevant scale. This way, it should ultimately be possible to offer these lignin-based building blocks as a viable alternative, for example, in the production of building materials such as insulation.

Jo Brouns explains: "VITO is the internationally renowned research organisation in the field of sustainable innovation technology. Here, the solutions of tomorrow are developed, including in the circular and bio-based bioeconomy where we use biomass as an alternative and sustainable raw material for the industry. This reduces our dependence on fossil fuels from abroad and reduces CO2 emissions. In this role, VITO will strengthen the competitiveness of Flanders. To do this, VITO will attract, train, and provide access to Flemish and international talents to the Flemish economic fabric. With the extra grant, this Flemish government resolutely chooses the path of sustainable innovation."

Inge Neven, CEO of VITO, adds: "LignoValue is a nice example of our strategy to support the industry with solutions that we develop from lab to pilot and demo scale. With this project, we turn waste and by-products into valuable raw materials that enable a sustainable future. Here, we bring together actors from the entire value chain to build the solutions of tomorrow. Innovation, sustainability, and competitiveness go hand in hand. At the same time, we also convey an important and hopeful message to society: a positive transition is indeed possible."

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