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Sellu

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New breed of business from cellulose

Leena Koskenlaakso  | 24.5.2017

​Digitalisation of the media could have led to the gradual demise of the Finnish paper and pulp industry, but the sector already seems to have transformed. VTT is helping companies to reinvent themselves and develop new, higher value-added products.​

Finland’s pulp industry has transformed since the turn of the millennium. Due to the digitalisation of the media, fewer newspapers and magazines are being printed and demand for paper has fallen dramatically. 

– A new turning point occurred in 2013, when the financial results of forestry enterprises began to improve. This was based on investments in energy and cardboard production in particular. Five biorefinery projects are underway in the spring of 2017, one of which has progressed to the investment phase. These are due to enter production between 2017 and 2022, says Ali Harlin, a Research Professor at VTT.

Another idea is to utilise side streams, such as lignin, which have been burned for energy until now. The idea is to use all of the wood.

Towards new, added-value products

– Finland has traditionally exported low value-added pulp for processing abroad. Instead, we should aim to make products with the highest possible added value and sell them for higher prices abroad, says VTT’s Jani Lehto, Vice President, Biomass processing and products.

The forestry sector has had to seek new, further processed fibre products which earn more euros from pulp. The most interesting new fibre products are packaging materials, textiles and composite materials.

– We now have a blank sheet full of new opportunities. We can begin using Finnish fibres in a range of products never considered in this way before. These new products could even double the added value of the forest industry, Lehto says.

Yhdistelmä.jpg
Jani Lehto, Vice President for Biomass processing and products show­cases different kinds of products made from cellulose.

What could cellulose replace?

Cellulose is a renewable biomaterial, which can be disposed of by composting and incineration. It can be processed into very rigid or flexible, transparent and translucent materials.

– All products made from oil can be replaced with cellulose made from wood. In other words, as Stora Enso’s most recent annual report says: “Everything that’s made with fossil-based materials today can be made from a tree tomorrow,” Lehto explains.

Replacing oil-based products with renewable materials is crucial to reducing the carbon footprint and combating climate change. The micro-plastics accumulating in the oceans are another major problem, which wood-based fibre products will hopefully solve.

Renewable packaging materials

– New packaging products include shaped, three-dimensional cardboard, which could replace polyester film. Similar products have so far been made of plastic only, says Harlin.

Single-serve packaging is proving highly popular and the next hit product could be, say, a bag that sits upright as a replacement for tins. These are now mainly produced from multi-­layer plastic.

Some of VTT’s new, fibre-based packaging solutions are already at the piloting stage. VTT researchers are developing an alternative to polystyrene used in interior packaging, for example.

VTT_Jkl_E46A2710.jpgJani Lehmonen

Recyclable clothes, fabrics and personal care products

– Major growth is forecast in textiles. Recyclable clothes, fabrics and personal care products, as well as technical products such as filters, can be made from cellulose. Carbon fibres are also in demand as electric vehicles become popular, Harlin says.

Hygiene textiles are growing faster than other kinds of textiles.

– The ageing population needs adult diapers. VTT has been involved in developing and demonstrating a pulp-based, absorbent material suitable for adult diapers. Its absorption capacity is 30 percent better than current products, says Jani Lehmonen, Senior Scientist.

VTT is developing a lyocell-type fibre based on ionic solvents, in collaboration with the University of Helsinki and Aalto University. The fashion chain H&M has funded the application of technology to recycled raw material flows. Aalto’s loncel fibre is expected to set new quality criteria in the sector.

A cellulose lyoncell developed by VTT is a good example of an added-value, new product which could be produced in Finland. Cellulose is easy to modify into soluble form and into a breathable fibre reminiscent of cotton. This method can be used to earn more money from the same quantity of wood, since cellulose carbamate in powder form is ten percent more expensive than conventional pulp. The price difference is doubled if the powder is converted into a fibre.

Finland has a strong basis for acting as a supplier and manufacturer of textile raw materials. We have such raw materials on a sustainable basis compared to cotton. Finland has no shortage of water and we have certified forests, placing no strain on production sectors in the food supply chain.

Fibre products are on the verge of breaking through

Nano and micro-cellulose, cellulose films and 3D-printed products are among the key fibre-based products on the verge of making breakthroughs.

Nanocellulose is a very finely ground cellulose with excellent strength and insulation properties. For example, nanocellulose can prevent fat from turning rancid due to oxygen penetration of food packaging. It can also be made into composite structures that are almost as strong as aluminium.

– Industrial processes have already been developed for the manufacture of nanocellulose, and the first products are already on the market. Many new nanocellulose products, such as rheology modifiers, fibre yarns for composites, barrier films, printing platforms for e.g. flexible displays and car batteries, will be launched over the next decade, Harlin adds.

There is already a cellulose suitable for additive manufacturing (3D printing). 3D technology is ideal for personalisation, or making individualised products.

VTT invests in infrastructure

VTT has made investments worth millions of euros in a new fibre foam research facility in Jyväskylä. The equipment, to be commissioned on pilotscale in the early autumn, will serve as a research platform for developing new product concepts and demos from cellulose. It will be located on the same premises as VTT’s current pilot equipment.

The new equipment is based on foam-forming, in which up to 70 percent air is added to a water-fibre mixture, enabling the preparation of products that are more porous and lighter than now. Foam-forming can be used to increase resource efficiency. 

New jobs based on fibre products

In February 2017, the Talouselämä magazine chose the VTT spin-off Paptic as one of Finland’s ten hottest startups. Paptic’s recyclable wood fibre materials can be used to replace plastic in bags and flexible packaging, for example. Paptic, which aims to become a major global producer, is seeking to grow and internationalise as fast as possible. The 14-person company, which operates in Espoo, aims to start up a full-scale production facility in 2018. This will require additional recruitment and investment from Paptic. CEO Tuomas Mustonen explains that the plant will directly employ more than 50 persons.

Spinnova, based in Jyväskylä, is commercialising a fibre yarn thread technology, originally developed at VTT, based on which yarn is directly produced from pulp from a pulp mill. This method can be used to achieve a water saving of 99 percent and an energy saving of 80 percent compared to cotton yarn production. This heralds a seismic breakthrough, as production progresses to industrial scale. Spinnova is already engaged in pilot-scale production. The next aim is to step up to industrial scale in 2018. If everything goes as planned, this 9-person company will need a large number of new employees in the future, says CEO Janne Poranen.​


Photos: Petri Blomqvist

 

 

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