VTT provides fertile ground for even the wildest ideas. Calorie-free muffins and food that prepares itself in a plastic bag could soon be common.
VTT has not marked time – it is already meeting the challenges of the future. All of its innovative talent has been enlisted in the interdisciplinary iBET programme.
"We are seeking new departures with the potential to become breakthroughs," says Executive Vice President Anne-Christine Ritschkoff.
A few years ago, VTT employees were asked to submit new, innovative ideas. Hundreds of proposals were made. If we saw potential in an idea, we asked our talents pitch their idea. Once a research plan had been accepted, the researchers were given the funding and freedom to develop the idea.
Energy and elastic electronics
Printed, ultra-thin, lightweight and flexible solar cells are one of the first innovations to be developed by VTT. They can be customised or modified to form decorative design elements suitable for locations such as interiors.
"Flexible solar cells gather energy from the environment: from light, vibrations and temperature fluctuations. They can be used in lamps, synthetic indoor plants, glass walls or even garden gnomes – almost anywhere. These objects provide power for devices such as telephones or light bulbs."
The prototype has attracted widespread interest. A YouTube video based on it has been viewed tens of thousands of times. The product is not yet on the market because it lacks an industrial manufacturer. However, work has already been done with designers.
In addition to photovoltaic cells, elastic electronics – which can be produced on a flexible substrate and stretch without breaking – have been developed at VTT. This technique is economical, since it enables the mass manufacture of products on a roll. The piloting device can already manufacture electronics for mass production.
"At VTT, we have also studied nano-cellulose, from which a thin, transparent film can be made to replace windows. Colour effects can be created using overlapping film. Another project involves extracting pigments, which have been chemically tuned, from autumn leaves. These colour components can be applied industrially."
From bacteria to gases
When diagnosing helicobacter pylori in the future, there will be no need to fear endoscopy if an IsoMED device is available. This device can detect bacteria in air exhaled by the patient.
"This sensitive, patented device will function as a clinical examination tool. Since gastroscopy is painful and expensive, the device will benefit both the patient and health care."
In addition, chemical components and even protein can be extracted from a problem gas – methane – generated by agriculture, landfills and the seabed. According to Ritschkoff, nature is a source of more and more opportunities for the bioeconomy: for example, methane can be used in plastics, paints, fuel, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. It can also be used as a raw material in feed.
Lignin derived from wood has become an area of interest in research. VTT even sees potential for using it in food production. Lignofood has many potential benefits, since it is low-calorie, stores well and is environmentally friendly.
"Even treats can be light based on lignins. I have already tried soft cup cakes and crunchy, crisp-like chips; they tasted great," says Ritschkoff.
In addition to health benefits, lignin has excellent baking properties. Even sausages have been successfully made from lignin at VTT.
"VTT is opening up a number of new research avenues. We are developing low-calorie, health-promoting foods and exploring new sources of protein, which could meet the nutritional needs of the world's growing population."
Innovative blenders or plastic bags could produce healthy food when filled with plant cells. Plant stem cells are extracted from, say, grain or root vegetables. In an appliance or bag-like bioreactor, they can quickly be grown into an entire meal.
"In just a few days, porridge or vegetable smoothies for an entire infantry squad could form in pouches taken on forest exercises."
A patent for a disposable plastic bag has already been filed and R&D continues.
The future is being created today
Ritschkoff points out that iBET has been well received inside and outside VTT.
"People have had the opportunity to innovate freely, while also developing their own expertise. This is a good way of looking towards the future. We are seeking ideas which are genuinely useful and create the businesses of the future."
She hopes that Finnish industry actively takes its new ideas onto the global markets and ensures that the resulting value is channelled to Finland.
"We can create wellbeing at home in this way."
What is iBET?
- The acronym IBET stands for Innovative Business from Emerging Technologies.
- The aim is to develop and utilise new technologies in shaping and transforming industrial ecosystems.
- These innovations must be of social, industrial or technological importance.
- VTT is investing EUR 2-2.5 million per year in iBET over a three-year period.
- More than 30 projects have been or are still ongoing during iBET.