Three years after the official introduction, TRANSfarm is ready for use. Over the past years, KU Leuven's farm complex in Lovenjoel (Bierbeek) has been transformed into a modern research centre for circular bioeconomy. The aim is to scale up and optimise innovations to put them into practice more quickly.
Growing new crops for a more plant-based diet. Processing green by-products into alternative chemical raw materials. Biomedical research into new vaccine technologies. More sustainable production of new building materials. Scaling up hydrogen gas panels that can be used everywhere as a renewable energy source.
Even though the research projects vary widely, they share a common basis: sustainability and a circular approach. These are only a few examples of what happens at TRANSfarm. The new research centre supports researchers in scaling up innovations in the bioeconomy and bioengineering from lab expertise to pilot scale in order to bring these new methods on the market and introduce them into society more quickly.
"KU Leuven is strongly committed to developing circular and sustainable processes for agriculture and industry, but the journey from the lab to the practical implementation is usually complex", explains director Wouter Merckx. "TRANSfarm offers our scientists the opportunity to speed up this process. That's where our name comes from, which stands for translational – practically applicable – research and transformation in agriculture."
Scientific and social evolution
TRANSfarm is the successor of the Zootechnical Centre in Lovenjoel. The model farm was built in 1928 to provide the nearby psychiatric centre Salva Mater with food. The farm also served as a research centre for the University. Over the course of history, it evolved along with science and society.
In the past years, the site has undergone a major transformation. The old cowsheds and pigsties have made way for a modern and sustainable farm complex with lab zones and new animal houses. That way, the centre still leaves room for traditional research on farm animals, mainly poultry and pigs. Eight units for animal research on a higher biosafety level are also available, which is essential for biomedical research into vaccines and medicines, for instance.
A new pilot hall was built that offers room to further develop technologies in various kinds of disciplines. For example, the Solhyd project will start up a pilot production line there: the innovative hydrogen gas panel, developed at KU Leuven, converts sunlight and water vapour directly into hydrogen gas. You'll also find the BioCon project at TRANSfarm, which specialises in the refining of woody biomass (plant residues and waste wood) to develop sustainable alternatives to fossil raw materials.
Striving for climate neutrality
TRANSfarm not only houses innovative research but also wants to play a pioneering role by working as climate-neutrally as possible. The new construction project functions without fossil fuels: six thousand square metres of solar panels produce the energy needed. Heat pumps guarantee the indoor climate in the different animal units and research areas. Combined with a biological scrubber, successive filters reduce emissions from livestock, such as nitrogen, dust and smell. This fossil fuel-free approach is in line with the European research project Hyperfarm, which is coordinated by TRANSfarm.
The new construction project and renovation works cost KU Leuven seven million euros. TRANSfarm can also count on support from the Flemish Government, through the post-COVID recovery plan. The Flemish Government invests nearly two million euros in research infrastructure for primary agricultural production, protein transition and biomass flows.
"Society faces major challenges: how can we make progress without further harming the planet? The need for innovation is high", says Gerard Govers, Vice Rector for the Science, Engineering and Technology Group and responsible for Sustainability Policy. "If we want to solve these complex issues, we will have to cooperate across the boundaries of different disciplines and with the help of businesses. TRANSfarm provides the right conditions for us to rise to the challenge."
This article was first published on 31 May by KU Leuven.