Innovation in the genes

Paques is a company in water technology that is based on innovation. The seed for this was sown in 1980, when Jos Pâques came into contact with scientist Gatze Lettinga. All the technology Paques brings to the market has been developed by the company itself. That makes it a unique company.

One evening in 1980, Jos Pâques watched the current affairs programme ‘Achter het Nieuws’ on television. Suddenly, his ears prick up and he sits up straight. Professor Gatze Lettinga of Wageningen University talks about a new process to treat waste­water and produce biogas. Pâques’ vision of the future changed instantly. He con­tacted the professor the next morning.

Storage silos

Fourteen years earlier, Jos Pâques came to work in his father Johan’s company. He initially came to help out for three weeks, and never left. Johan Pâques started a trading company for the agricultural sector. Due to the increase in scale in agriculture, farmers need large stocks of feed. Paques saw opportunities for growth and success­fully made and sold storage silos. But at the end of the 70s, the tide turned. A new storage method came onto the market, the concrete trench silo. Cheaper and more practical to use. In one year, the market for high silos collapsed almost completely. If the Paques company was to survive, a miracle was needed. Or a radical change of course. And on that evening in 1980, this change of course was thrown into his lap while he was sitting in front of the tube.

Joost Paques

Working together to reinforce each other

Paques is the initiator of a BioBizz hub in the Northern Netherlands. The goal is to help new companies in water and biotechnology to scale up their production and bring it to the market. “We have a number of fruitful partnerships around the Water Campus,” says Joost Pâques, “such as with Wetsus and the Water Alliance. However, there is still a gap when it comes to making the leap from start-up to commercially successful business. As we are well-versed in this area, we would like to give fledgling companies a leg-up. We hope, in turn, to gain innovative impulses from this.” The BioBizz hub project is made possible by the EU, the SNN, the province of Friesland, the municipality of De Fryske Marren and Paques.

Bacteria in grains

Lettinga succeeded in growing anaerobic bacteria, bacteria that do not need oxygen, in grains. These grains sink to the bottom in a tank, so that they remain in the reactor when clean water leaves the tank at the top. This makes it possible to build compact reactors. Pâques and Lettinga joined forces and a year later, the first anaerobic BIOPAQ® installation was ready. The treatment instal­lation was a success almost immediately. Bavaria beer brewer is one of Paques’ first customers (the company name is without an accent on the a). The project attracted a lot of attention in the trade press, and other construction companies at home and abroad also took an interest in the new technology. Paper mills and food producers follow.

Seed for innovation

According to Joost Pâques, current Global Director Business Development & Strategy and son of Jos, it was the decline of the silo market that sparked the company’s innovative capacity. The company always knows how to lead the way and attract the best minds to develop new processes over and over again. Sjoerd Vellinga is at the cradle of the internal circulation reactor in the water treatment plant, now the worldwide standard. Another invention of the company is the THIOPAQ® technology. This is a process to extract hydrogen sulphide (H2S) from (bio)gas. After treatment, the biogas can be used in a gas engine or boiler, but it can also be supplied to a local microgas network. Paques did not develop this technology alone. The company also works together with universities, research institutes and customers. “Cooperation is an important part of Paques’ philosophy,” says Joost Pâques. The company was one of the pioneers of the Wetsus research institute (the interview with Cees Buisman can be found else­where in this issue) and is closely involved in the Water Alliance, a partnership to market the Dutch expertise in the field of water.

Removing ammonia

After Paques succeeded in developing a commercially viable way of extracting H2S from gas, the company came up with a method to remove ammonium from wastewater. Compared to the conventional approach, this process saves up to 60% on operational costs, while reducing CO2 emissions. In recent years Paques has focused on technology to recover valuable substances from water, such as sulphates, phosphors and metals. After all, the slogan ‘revitalising resources’ has been chosen with good reason. At the moment, a lot of R&D attention is being paid to the possibility of extracting bio­polymers from wastewater as a raw mate­rial for bioplastics. This would multiply the yield. Paques is a family busi­ness. That has advantages and disadvan­tages, according to Joost Pâques. “The trick is to use the advantages and eliminate the disadvan­tages. An advantage is that we focus mainly on continuity, not on quick profit. As a family business, you run the risk that things are decided at the kitchen table. These are not always the best choices. This is one of the reasons why we have had an external CEO since 2001. That works very well. (See also the interview with CEO Stephan Bocken elsewhere in this issue.)