In memory of Guido Ghisolfi we publish the interview he released to us in 2013.
The green technologies are the drivers of the modern economy
“The green technologies are some of the driving forces of the modern economy, this is not only my view, but also other important national and international groups have begun to invest and diversify their production in a green vision. The objectives that arises in such investments are long term but the results arrive, if one knows how to wait”. To say it, in this long interview, is Guido Ghisolfi, the vice president of MG Group headquartered in Tortona, and president and Ceo of Biochemtex, the architect of the conversion of the second Italian chemical group in one of the world major players in the bioeconomy, with the largest plant in the world for the production of second generation bioethanol inaugurated in Crescentino, in the province of Vercelli (Italy). With engineer Ghisolfi we talk about bioeconomy, research and industrial innovation, because “the industrial policy of the future can’t be separated from the concept of environmental sustainability”. “The raw materials alternatives to oil can be obtained through the use of biomass grown on marginal land without competing with food through innovative technologies. We must, however, continue to invest in industrial research to ensure the development of technological excellence in Italy, these are the variables of an equation that leads as a result of the competition system of the country”.
Interview by Mario Bonaccorso
Engineer Ghisolfi, could you first tell us what led one of the major producers in the world of PET for packaging, as well as second Italian chemical group, to invest in a biorefinery for the production of second generation bioethanol.
Our Group celebrates 60 years in business, its story has always been to look to the future: having achieved a goal we have continued to look forward, in order to be competitive. This philosophy has rewarded us and led us to be one of the major private chemical company in Italy, although we are unknown to the “public”. Our boost into the future was critical when, a few years ago, we invested € 140 million in R & D developing a technology to produce biofuels from non-food biomass. We have instigated a real revolution in rethinking the chemistry as a sustainable resource, one of the areas on which to invest for the future.Today we can say that our vision, our ability to take risks and invest, has led us to be amongst the world leaders in the field of biofuels and has allowed Italy to achieve an important technological advantage.
More generally, what are the investments already made by the MG Group in the bioeconomy? What are the next steps in the Italian market and in the international market?
In 2008 we opened a Research Centre in Rivalta Scrivia (Alessandria, Italy) entirely dedicated to renewable energy sources, where, starting from 2009, was put into operation a pilot plant to produce biofuels. Thanks to the research conducted in this centre, we invested another 150 million euros to build the world’s first demonstration plant to produce second-generation biofuels at Crescentino (Vercelli, Italy). Still on the subject of research we are about to inaugurate a Research Centre in Modugno (Bari, Italy), where – thanks to the support of the Puglia Region – we’ll build laboratories and a demonstration plant to produce chemical intermediates from lignin, a co-product of ethanol production. Now we are researching a number of preliminary assessments in some areas in Italy that could be strategic in building new plants.
As you know, the use of biomass is subject to different trade-offs. Among these, the most controversial is that between food and fuel, the second generation of biofuels should help to overcome this. Where do you take the biomass needed to fuel the biorefinery of Crescentino?
Our Group has set-up a company that deals exclusively with the establishment of the agricultural chain that serves to fuel the plant of Crescentino. The plant is located in an area with a strong agricultural vocation and allows to take advantage of a wide variety of biomass available at low cost in a radius of 70 km from the plant. At present we are using rice straw and wood chips but we are developing a dedicated distribution network in order to have available the giant cane (Arundo donax), which can be grown on marginal lands, without taking land dedicate to the agricultural production for food use.
At the beginning of February, the MG Group, together with its subsidiary Beta Renewables, was the protagonist of the European initiative “Leaders of sustainable biofuels.” What are your goals?
The signatories of this initiative believe that the second-generation biofuels and the “advanced biofuels” in general represent one of the best industrial opportunities in the field of sustainable energy sources. The world are increasing the initiatives to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and biofuels from non-food biomass are a key factor to achieve this goal. In this regard, we “Leaders” decided to put in place a series of measures to accelerate the deployment of sustainable technologies because, today, we can start with the production on an industrial scale but we need to be supported by a legislative framework that encourages long-term investments in this sector. We need clear and precise rules and our main partners are the European Commission and the Parliament together with governments and the various financial institutions. In order to achieve our goals by accelerating industrial processes and research on so-called biofuels we are open to cooperation with other international organizations who are already working in this area such as IEA (International Bioenergy Implementing Agreement) and Global Bioenergy Initiative, just to name a few.
What do you think about the action of the European Union to support the development of the bioeconomy? Is there one particular measure that is lacking today and that you believe it is essential for Europe to compete in the world market?
The National and European industry is ready, and a world leader in a highly specialized and innovative sector: this has been possible thanks to the efforts and investments of important companies, supported by the European Union and by the Member States. Technologies so there are, what we now need is a long-term legislative framework and the introduction of specific objectives to ensure investment and market development of sustainable biofuels generation.
From Europe to Italy. In our country there isn’t a national strategy for the bioeconomy. The MG Group, however, has signed with the Government a Memorandum of Understanding for the development of second-generation biofuels. What does this protocol?
The Memorandum of Understanding with the Government envisages the creation of a development project of sustainable chemistry in Italy able to offer real prospects for growth. The Government is committed, consistent with the guidelines established by the SEN (National Strategy on Energy), to: define a rising trajectory of the shares of mixing in order to make certain the scenario until 2020; map the availability of biomass and areas suitable for production sites focusing on areas disused; promote alliances with trade associations; definition of a definite schedule for the permitting procedures, promotion and co-financing of a program of research and higher education in the field of green chemistry.
For our part we are committed to investing in localized plants that use Proesa technology in the sites that will be identified by mutual agreement and which meet the conditions and local requirements that will be established from time to time; co-invest in a program of research and development in the industry, involving in this initiative academic and industrial partners to gather national and international experts in one area to accelerate and maintain the competitive advantage gained in the field today.
With the signing of this Protocol we kick off an important project that offers real prospects for growth for the country in a growing sector, where Italian technology holds a position of world leadership.
Eurostat data in 2012 indicate a contraction of gross domestic product in our country equal to -2.7%. Istat showed that the fourth quarter of 2012 (-0.9%) was the sixth in a row that there has been a decline in GDP, a situation comparable to the one that occurred between 1992 and 1993. What policies should be put in place our country, in your view, to return to grow?
The “green” technologies are some of the driving forces of the modern economy, this is not only my view, but also other important national and international groups have begun to invest and diversify their production in a green vision. The objectives that arises in such investments are long term but the results arrive, if one knows how to wait. Currently we are in a transition phase, and the transition to the green economy, if supported by policies at national and international level, will not result in an economic decline, but rather the creation of new jobs to replace those lost progressively from the traditional economy.
In light of your experience in green chemistry, help us to define a new concept of industrial policy for the Third Millennium.
The industrial policy of the future can’t be separated from the concept of environmental sustainability. The raw materials alternatives to oil can be obtained through the use of biomass grown on marginal land without competing with food through innovative technologies. We must, however, continue to invest in industrial research to ensure the development of technological excellence in Italy, these are the variables of an equation that leads as a result of the competition system of the country. The investments made in renewable energy sources represent a viable alternative to improve the economic balance; continuous technological development and a new industrial system can create new business opportunities and new jobs as a result.