KU Leuven: KU Leuven opens TRANSfarm: test center for the development of sustainable, circular innovations

Three years after the official presentation, TRANSfarm is ready for use. In recent years, the KU Leuven farm complex in Lovenjoel (Bierbeek) has been transformed into a modern research center for circular bioeconomy. The aim is to scale up and further develop innovations and thus bring them into practice more quickly.

The cultivation of new crops for a more plant-based diet. The processing of green by-products into alternative chemical raw materials. Biomedical research into new vaccine technologies. More sustainable production of new building materials. The upscaling of hydrogen panels that can be used anywhere as a renewable energy source.

The old stables and sheds have been replaced
by a modern and sustainable farm complex with
lab zones and new animal accommodation.
Even though they are diverse research projects, they share a common basis: sustainability and a circular approach. These are just a few examples of what TRANSfarm stands for, the new KU Leuven research center that will be officially opened this week. The test center supports researchers in scaling up innovations in the bioeconomy and biotechnology from lab level to pilot scale, with a view to moving them faster to the market and society.

“KU Leuven is strongly committed to developing circular and sustainable processes for agriculture and industry, but the step from lab to practice is usually not an easy one,” explains director Wouter Merckx. “TRANSfarm offers our scientists the opportunity to accelerate this process. Hence our name, which stands for translational – practically applicable – research and transformation in agriculture.”

Scientific and social evolution
TRANSfarm is the successor to the Zootechnical Center in Lovenjoel. The model farm was built in 1928 to provide food for the nearby Salva Mater psychiatric center. In addition, the farm also served as a research center for the university. In the course of history, it evolved along with science and society.

In recent years, the site has undergone a true transformation. The old stables and sheds have been replaced by a modern and sustainable farm complex with lab zones and new animal accommodation. This leaves room for traditional research into farm animals, mainly poultry and pigs. In addition, there are eight units for animal research at a higher biosafety level, which is essential for biomedical research into, for example, vaccines and medicines.

A new pilot hall has been built that offers space for different types of research to further develop their technology. For example, the Solhyd project will start up a pilot production line there: the innovative hydrogen panel, developed at KU Leuven, converts sunlight and water vapor directly into hydrogen gas. At TRANSfarm you will also find the BioCon project, which focuses on the refining of woody biomass (plant residues and waste wood) in order to develop sustainable alternatives to fossil raw materials.

The KU Leuven researchers behind the Solhyd project have been nominated for the European Inventor Award. You can vote for the audience award via the website of the European Patent Office.

Striving for climate neutrality
TRANSfarm not only houses innovative research, it also wants to be progressive by working as climate neutral as possible. The new-build project functions fossil-free: six thousand square meters of solar panels provide the energy. The indoor climate in the various animal units and research areas is guaranteed by the use of heat pumps. A series of filters together with the biological air scrubber reduce house emissions, such as nitrogen, dust and odor. This fossil-free approach is in line with the European research project Hyperfarm, of which TRANSfarm is coordinator.

The new-build project and renovation work will cost KU Leuven seven million euros. In addition, TRANSfarm can count on support from the Flemish government, through the post-corona recovery plan. It invests almost two million euros in research infrastructure into primary agricultural production, protein transition and processing of biomass flows.

“Society faces major challenges to develop without further burdening the climate and nature. The need for innovation is particularly great,” says Gerard Govers, vice rector of the Science & Technology Group and responsible for Sustainability Policy. “If we want to solve these complex issues, we cross the boundaries of different disciplines, and with the help of companies, we have to work together. TRANSfarm offers the right conditions to make this happen.”

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