An office building in Gouda Goverwelle houses ALTA GROUP, consisting of CEO Frank Vergunst with his management team and a number of employees, supplemented by a large shell of knowledge partners. All have extensive experience in the oil and gas and chemical industries and are involved in technological innovations. One of these is the development of a new route for the synthesis of green organic carbonates for which CO2 is used as a feedstock.
ALTA GROUP began as an advisory and consultancy company. When the shovel goes into the ground in Terneuzen to build a pilot plant, it becomes a chemical company. The plant converts CO2 into a liquid that can be used in batteries. This is a so-called electrolyte that facilitates ion transport in the battery. The plans for the chemical operations were the reason for joining the VNCI at the end of last year. It was also a logical step to join FutureCarbonNL, a partnership of universities, knowledge institutes, industry, SMEs and startups for research, development, demonstration and marketing of technologies that convert CO2 and CO into new, sustainable materials, fuels and (animal) food. Vergunst: "This project fits exactly with what we want. We have been working with CCU (Carbon Capture and Utilisation, the capture and reuse of CO2, ed.) since 2015. It is good that we are now acting together from a collective."
Back to the beginning in 2012. Vergunst: "I wanted to move more in the sustainable direction, but at the company I was working for, there was little room for that. It led to my decision to sell my shares in the company and start again. I already knew a thing or two about the technology to extract CO2 from gas streams, but the system was just too expensive at the time. The ETS price was five to six euros per tonne. That's not going to be it, I knew. But I did start thinking further about what you could make from CO2. Is there any conceivable system by which you can earn from CO2? We then made a list of thirty molecules and ranked them according to cost and revenue, so that we could get an idea of how much CO2 you could use. The choice fell on propylene carbonate. I really didn't know everything about CO2 in the beginning, but I did know that the technology would be well suited to the booming battery market in Europe." Converting CO2 into a liquid that can be used in batteries is the simple explanation Vergunst gives when people ask what ALTA GROUP does.
He is now more than a decade on and takes stock in between. "I have mainly spent a lot of money. That is partly equity, supplemented by financial support from RVO to do feasibility studies, a contribution from Impuls Zeeland and last year a large amount of DEI subsidy. That does indicate that they believe in our technology. Financing is a matter of having a long breath. We spent three years applying for the DEI subsidy. We are now looking for parties who want to finance the last piece: the construction of the pilot plant. We have 65 per cent of the money together, the remaining 35 per cent is yet to come."
Vergunst hopes the shovel will go in the ground this summer. "By then, I hope we will have completed the financing as well as the permits. For the first nine months we won't need to build on site, the modular parts will be made elsewhere and assembled later at Valuepark Terneuzen. We will get in-kind support from North Sea Port and Dow because they also believe in our plans."
Never give up, always keep going
So the licensing process has also taken a long time. "We submitted our application in April last year. It turned out that it was not quite complete and there was an existing permit for our building site that had to be taken off first. By then, the State Council came out with the Porthos ruling. We had to prove time and again that we were not emitting NOx and ammonia during construction. In mid-December, the province suddenly announced that a new calculation programme would be available in January. We then started working on it at the end of January. Again calculating everything, again demonstrating everything neatly. Of course you do it, but it all takes time. I was once given the advice: 'NOAD, never give up, always keep going.' It's always on the whiteboard here in the office and if one day is tough, I look at it. I believe in my way of doing business: sustainable and responsible.""
The battery market is interesting given the predicted growth of battery manufacturing in Europe, Vergunst says. "We hope to reach 10 Mt of CO2 per year in 12 years that we want to capture from the industry and use it to make products. When I talk to people, they say, 'Frank, 10 Mt, do you know how much that is?' It's a lot too, but you have to have ambition. We also look at social value in that scenario, what does it contribute to a sustainable future. We contribute to the new energy market, we use CO2 directly, we need eighty per cent less energy and we make it in Europe. Not in China. They can do it there, but with a more polluting technology. Those specially make CO2 from fossil raw materials, then extract it and ship it back here."
Besides cyclic carbonates, ALTA GROUP wants to make even more products using CO2 as a raw material. Moreover, the company wants to replace fossil components with green ones. Vergunst: "It is relevant what we do. I have to do it too, I have no choice. I could have stopped working in 2012, but I still have so many new plans and they must always have something to do with CO2, be sustainable, fit a good business model and be good for the environment.
This article previously appeared in Chemistry Magazine. Author: Ingeborg Abendanon.