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Flemish SME recounts pros and cons of going European



OWS has contributed to eco-innovation research since 1993 with cutting-edge facilities winning it a place in EU projects but policymakers do not always share its views on innovation.

Belgian SME OWS – Organic Waste Systems – was founded in 1988 and now has 75 employees and annual sales of €10 to 20 million. It boasts a first-class laboratory shaped in part by participation in EU-funded bioplastics projects, mainly through the EU research framework programmes. Researchers and companies around the world come to OWS to study biodegradability of bioplastics.

Its deep knowledge and accumulated experience make OWS an invaluable contributor to any research in the field today. However: “for our core activity, we find it difficult to gain access to European funding,” says OWS project manager Andy Peene.

OWS is about more than bioplastics – its core offering is a package of services for biogas production. The company designs and builds plants for anaerobic digestion of organic matter to make biogas, which can be burned instead of fossil fuels to generate ‘green’ electricity. The SME also offers follow-up consulting and support services – for competitors’ plants too – and has developed biodegradability tests to determine the suitability of different feedstocks for biogas production. Laboratory follow-up services and biodegradability testing are run in parallel to the bioplastics research.

Currently the company is involved in the Ovade Plus LIFE project. This is investigating a prototype process for additional sorting of household waste to recover a higher proportion of organic matter to turn into biogas. French partner Organom will build a plant to implement the new process. It is a project worth millions – much bigger than all the bioplastics projects the company has been involved in, says Peene. On-going bioplastics projects include the 2008 to 2012 Hydrus project which is developing biodegradable pipes and drippers for micro-irrigation.

Despite the high value and market potential, getting EU funding for biogas production process innovations has been difficult, colleague Bruno Mattheeuws continues. EU officials do not recognise anaerobic digestion innovations as innovative because the process itself is not new.

OWS’ patented anaerobic digestion process DRANCO did not gain EU funding for its development even though it is innovative in using much less water than competing versions, say Mattheeuws. Policymakers do not necessarily understand that the purity of the feedstock entering a biogas production plant has big implications for its efficiency, and innovations to increase that purity are therefore both economically and environmentally interesting.

Perhaps the tide is turning, however. As well as Ovade Plus, OWS has submitted a proposal for an EU project called Eosan which seeks to achieve the first market application of a multifunctional anaerobic digestion concept.

Related information on the EcoAP Website