Thanks to a membrane process, IOI Loders Croklaan, producer of edible oils, could save on energy consumption equivalent to 100 households each year. VITO developed the technology and worked with an international team on an initial pilot installation. Today the ceramic membrane is ready for broad market introduction.

“We use thermal processes in the production of our oils,” says Erik Schweitzer, Process Engineering Manager at IOI Loders Croklaan. “Thanks to VITO’s smart membrane, we can now save significantly on energy and operating costs. Using this new technology we can also produce more without having to expand our factory or installations. We expect the carbon dioxide savings to be considerable: for one factory, we could realise a CO2 reduction of 650 tonnes per year, the equivalent of 100 households. Thus our factory could emit 50 percent less CO2 than before. We are talking about a possible 15 percent reduction for our total production.”

Recovering acetone

VITO was responsible for the technology behind the success story at IOI Loders Croklaan. Pieter Vandezande: “We developed a ceramic membrane with which we can separate acetone from oils. This was part of the ISPT project EEMBAR: Energy Efficient Membrane Based Acetone Recovery. Acetone is necessary in the Croklaan production process to separate hard and soft fractions from the oil. But no acetone may remain in the final product. In addition, solvent recovery is a must from an economic perspective. Currently almost all acetone is recovered with an efficient but very energy-intensive distillation process. Initially membranes did not appear to be an option, since the acetone would corrode them after a few hours. But you can eliminate that risk with our ceramic membrane. We treat it with organomagnesium compounds: this makes it suitable for the specific solvents with which it comes in contact.” “With the membrane, IOI Loders Croklaan produces a particularly pure oil suitable for consumption. The acetone is recuperated and, as before, can be almost fully reused in the process. But because our membrane technology is a non-thermal process, we will realise major energy savings once the pilot phase has been successfully completed. Moreover, the costs are comparable to those of solvent-stable polymer membranes.”

Scaling up

VITO is demonstrating the technology on-site at one of the IOI Loders Croklaan factories. The purpose-built pilot plant has been running at full speed for a year and a half now. Roel Vleeschouwers: “VITO is particularly strong in scaling up innovative technologies for commercial use. We have the technological knowledge in-house, but we also know how to apply it to a specific business case. In addition, we take care of the follow-up and train the operators who will soon start working independently with the technology. We rolled out EEMBAR in collaboration with SolSep and University College Rotterdam, with funding from the Dutch government through the Institute for Sustainable Process Technology (ISPT). A fruitful collaboration.” IOI Loders Croklaan agrees. “We’ve found a reliable partner in VITO, with whom we’d like to start follow-up projects”, says Erik Schweitzer. “We’ll start with commercial implementation of the ceramic membrane from the EEMBAR project in the new ISRO project (Implementation of Solvent Recovery), which also includes SolSep, TUSTI, MTSA and Eindhoven University of Technology. Our focus is on economic upscaling: the membrane must be able to process acetone in quantities sufficient for a high-performance industrial installation. Once the technology is ready, we will also be able to use it in our two other factories.”

ClimateLaunchpad finalist

The fact that EEMBAR will be followed up with the new ISRO project is no coincidence. Membrane technology is attracting attention everywhere. The pilot plant was developed in accordance with the GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices) quality assurance system and has an ATEX certificate, a guarantee that it can be used without risk in production environments where use is made of potentially explosive organic solvents. Moreover, the membrane meets the necessary requirements for application in a food process. The road is open for applications to all types of edible oils. But other sectors may also be interesting.

Roel Vleeschouwers: “Last year we were finalists at ClimateLaunchpad (a business competition organised by Climate-KIC, the largest European private-public partnership for the promotion of climate innovation, ed.). There we focused on applications in the pharmaceutical sector. But our membrane technology can also be of interest for all kinds of applications within the chemical industry. With our concept, we are able to achieve enormous CO2 reductions throughout the process industry.”