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Taking the bioeconomy to a new level through digitalisation

Text: Paula Bergqvist | Photos: Timo Kauppila & LUT | 1.12.2017

One of VTT's biggest investments so far – the Bioruukki Pilot Centre in Kivenlahti, Espoo – is being transformed into a research environment that brings together digitalisation, research on the bio and circular economies, and companies.

– We are developing a new kind of piloting ecosystem. The kind in which the bio and circular economies combine with digitalisation, and where companies and research organisations can agilely develop ideas towards industrial scale, says Jussi Manninen, Executive Vice President of VTT.

– By 2019, VTT's Bioruukki will develop into a unique entity on a world-wide scale. We are combining different piloting environments to serve business value chains at various stages of development.

The first phase of the centre was completed in, Espoo, in 2015. Thermochemical experimentation was begun on the production – using gasification and pyrolysis technologies – of bio-based fuels and chemicals from biomass and recycled raw materials. The goals of the current projects are greater energy efficiency and the lowering of investment costs.

Bioruukki's operations will also be extended into new areas.  A research pilot for textile fibres was completed in the summer of 2017. The research facilities at the Biomass Centre are currently in the construction phase, while the Green Chemistry Centre is still being designed. 

According to Manninen, combining the pilots will accelerate the expensive development phase, in which ideas developed in labs are moved towards industrial scale. The aim is high value products and efficient production.

– Full advantage should be taken of the opportunities afforded by digitalisation, if we want to achieve our bioeconomy objectives with respect to economic growth and environmental and climate impacts, says Manninen.

Long-term cooperation agreements

Ecosystems are being created at Bioruukki, based on which companies can develop their operations alongside VTT or other research organisations and companies.

– We have invited companies to join us in digitalisation and creating an ecosystem. Around 20 have already signed up. We will begin the collaboration with the first ones  during the autumn. Our first task is to digitalise the piloting of textile fibres, before moving on to the Chemistry Centre, says Mikko Vänskä, Business Development Manager.

– It is important to us that companies commit themselves to ecosystem activities for several years ahead. 1–5 year cooperation agreements are currently being negotiated. As well as VTT's expert and operational resources, companies would have access to 80–100 square metres of space with piloting equipment, warehouses and office and social facilities. Companies can also bring their own equipment onto the premises, which will then be integrated into Bioruukki's sub-processes.

The corporate ecosystem concept requires that the pilots involve the latest digitalisation technology.  Bearing this goal in mind, Siemens Finland and VTT have begun collaboration on activities such as the development of instrumentation, automation and the cloud-based MindSphere IoT system around the piloting equipment. The process life-cycle  design work will be performed by using Siemens's COMOS tool.

The Bioruukki digitalisation project can be followed online at: https://digitalfiberinitiative.com/

Research facilities for biomass

The construction of a biomass centre at Bioruukki is in the finalisation stage; its laboratory-scale equipment will be 'switched on' next spring.  A total of EUR 6.5 million has been invested in construction and equipment. The size of the laboratory and pilot facilities, designed mainly for forest biomass processing and pulp production, will be 2,000 square metres.

This development work will support pulp mill projects currently pending in Finland.

New building for the Green Chemistry Centre

A 1,500-square-metre new building will be completed in Bioruukki, Espoo, in 2019, for piloting the production of chemicals and new materials.

– The first process equipment will start up sometime after the summer of 2019. We will develop a collaborative model for this research environment as well, where VTT and business or research organisations can develop their own operations, says Vänskä.

Including the buildings and equipment, the investment will total EUR 10 million. Siemens Finland is involved in digitalising the process platform for the project.

Process chemistry pilots to move from Rajamäki and Otaniemi

VTT will wind up its research and development activities at the Rajamäki facility by December 2017. Key R&D will then be temporarily transferred to Otaniemi, so that service operations can continue uninterrupted.

The biomass process research facilities currently located in Otaniemi – the viscose, fibre spinning and pulp cooking equipment – will be transferred to Bioruukki at the end of 2017.

There are currently 25 VTT employees at Bioruukki, which will grow to 50–70 within a couple of years. The work of around 500 VTT employees is closely related to Bioruukki. R&D will continue in VTT's research premises in Otaniemi in Espoo, Jyväskylä and Tampere, supporting the pilot projects performed at Bioruukki.

 

Mobile unit generates and stores energy

VTT and the German startup INERATEC have built a synthesis unit in a mobile marine container for the chemical storage of energy. The synthesis container uses chemical reactions to produce synthetic natural gas, liquid fuels and feedstocks for petrochemicals from hydrogen and carbon oxide.

Decentralised production solutions are produced using the mobile unit. The key research focus is on the utilisation of biomass and industrial waste gas flows for renewable products.

During the summer, the synthesis container was transferred from Bioruukki to Lappeenranta, where it was involved in the SOLETAIR project by VTT and Lappeenranta University of Technology. The project demonstrated how a solar powered plant can produce fuel and chemicals from carbon dioxide captured from the air. A total of 100 litres of fuels and other hydrocarbons were produced during the summer.

Next the synthesis unit will be connected to the Bioruukki gasification pilot as part of the EU COMSYN project on the exploitation of biowaste. The project involves the development of a process which will cut biodiesel production costs by 35%. This could reduce production costs per litre of biofuel to under EUR 0.80.  The production concept is based on decentralised production units located close to biomass sources.

 

VTT's synthesis container was involved in VTT's and LUT's SOLETAIR project during the summer.  Researcher Christian Frilund presents fuel produced from carbon dioxide using solar energy.

 

A new lease of life for textile fibres

The first test runs in the Bioruukki pilot environment being built for wet spinning were performed in the summer of 2017. This research environment will enable the development of processes such as cotton waste recycling.

The joint TeKiDe project between VTT and Aalto University involves the transformation of wood fibres and discarded cotton textiles, such as used sheets and towels, into viscose-type fibre as a raw material for textile products. R&D is particularly focused on carbamate, BioCelSol and Ioncell-F technologies; these are more environmentally friendly and safer than viscose production, which is based on the use of carbon disulphide. The project is being funded by the Helsinki-Uusimaa Regional Council's Structural Fund for Mainland Finland programme, the City of Espoo, VTT and Aalto University.

 

 

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