From a coal-mining area to a model region for the bioeconomy

Saxony-Anhalt offers significant potential for value chains based on renewable resources

The coal-mining region of central Germany is reinventing itself. It is moving away from its 150-year-old image as an important supplier of brown coal to become a new model region for the bioeconomy. Research institutions and businesses are paving the way for this new development and playing a pioneering role in a fertile area for innovation with the support of funding from the Structural Reinforcement Act.

“We think that the region has considerable potential for the development of a future bioeconomy,” says Gerd Unkelbach, director of the Fraunhofer Center for Chemical-Biotechnological Processes CBP in Leuna. He believes that because of its many links to other industries, such as agriculture, forestry, food, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, central Germany with Saxony-Anhalt at its heart could develop an efficient circular economy that is heavily based on renewable resources. Together with the bioeconomy cluster in Halle (Saale), the CBP is planning a bioeconomy hub in the form of a technology and service center to support young companies and start-ups in the bioeconomy. “We can help them to turn their business ideas into marketable products. Also we will provide a production infrastructure including offices, laboratory facilities and industrial machinery,” says Unkelbach and highlights the fact that Leuna offers the ideal conditions. In Germany’s second largest chemical park, around 100 companies, which have close links with one another, manufacture products ranging from basic chemicals to high-performance plastics.

The bioeconomy hub connects new value chains

“In Leuna in particular there are considerable potential synergies for the bioeconomy, including the use of waste products from the forestry and agriculture industries,” adds Matthias Zscheile, managing director of BioEconomy Cluster Management GmbH. “For example, the Finnish paper company UPM is building a biorefinery in the park where biochemicals will be produced from hardwood. And Linde, the manufacturer of industrial gases, is constructing the world’s largest PEM electrolysis plant here to manufacture green hydrogen.” In addition, the bioeconomy hub lies at the heart of a regional research landscape that promotes the transfer of knowledge from basic research to practical applications. Examples include the Institute of Agricultural and Food Sciences at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, the Department of Agriculture, Ecotrophology and Landscape Development at Anhalt University of Applied Sciences (UAS) and the engineering courses at Merseburg UAS. The Fraunhofer Institute for Microstructure of Materials and Systems IMWS in Halle (Saale) is carrying out research into composites and substances made from renewable raw materials. It is a key partner in the Hydrogen Power Storage & Solutions East Germany consortium, also known as HYPOS, which is developing important technologies for generating and storing green hydrogen.

According to Zscheile, the bioeconomy hub will in the future create more effective links between all the players in the new value chains and make the region more attractive, in particular for companies planning to move there.

The innovation hub for “Future Wood and Climate” replaces coal

The district of Mansfeld-Südharz has been particularly hard hit by the phase-out of coal. However, forestry and the timber industry have traditionally been important parts of the area’s economy. “We need to modernize these industries,” says Matthias Zscheile, the bioeconomy cluster manager, and explains that an innovation hub for “Future Wood and Climate” will be created here. The Saxony-Anhalt Ministry for the Environment, Agriculture and Energy is supporting the center of excellence and research with money from the European Structural and Investment Fund. Ideas for new areas of business are being developed here with the involvement of regional supply companies. One example given by Zscheile is a modular system for modern industrial timber construction made from local raw materials. The goal is to manufacture products on a large scale for customers in areas that are easily accessible, for example Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden, Magdeburg and Hanover. Zscheile explains that the project will create skilled engineering and manual jobs and also develop training modules for employees working in this field.

The central German algae center – an important feature of the bioeconomy

Algae may be very small but they offer considerable potential for the future. In Saxony-Anhalt, world-class research is being carried out in this area. “We want to develop active substances for use in food, medicine and cosmetics and also produce sustainable fuels from these versatile organisms,” says algae expert Carola Griehl, professor of biochemistry at Anhalt UAS in Köthen, describing a constantly growing value chain. The Competence Center for Algal Biotechnology at Anhalt UAS has been running applied research projects in this field for 20 years. At the Fraunhofer Center for Chemical-Biotechnological Processes CBP in Leuna the laboratory processes are being scaled up to an industrial level. The Biosolar Center in Köthen, based on cooperation between Anhalt UAS and GICON GmbH from Dresden, is improving the technologies and photobioreactors used for the industrial production of the active substances.

The newest link in the chain is the Center for Natural Product-Based Therapeutics (ZNT), which is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Together with the Fraunhofer Institute for Cell Therapy and Immunology, the ZNT is researching into the active substances in algae that can be used to treat neurodegenerative diseases and is developing them into marketable products.

Carola Griehl explains that the algae network is growing. One important partner in the network is Roquette Klötze GmbH & Co. KG, a company based in the Altmark region. Its industrial photobioreactor plant is producing algae in glass tubes with a total length of 500 kilometers.

Other partners from the worlds of research and industry are planning to come together in a central German algae center. The center aims to establish a bio-based industrial cluster working with algae that will function as an important component of the bioeconomy in Saxony-Anhalt.

Author: Kathrain Graubaum/IMG Saxony-Anhalt