Sign In
Information about science based innovations, solid facts to support decision-making, performance and business development for VTT’s partners, customers and anyone interested in high technology and its applications.
A magazine on science, technology and business

​The water interactions of lignocellulose are best studied at the molecular level and at nanoscale. Eero Kontturi, Suvi Arola and Tekla Tammelin gather around an atomic force microscope.

New materials developed from plants

Text: Juha Peltonen I Photo: Timo Porthan | 16.4.2019

Lignocellulose can be used for making surface-sensitive materials, whose reactions with the environment are controlled by water.

- This is also how plants function, says Tekla Tammelin, Research Professor and head of the FinnCERES project at VTT. 

FinnCERES is a flagship project, funded by the Academy of Finland, where new materials for the bioeconomy are being developed in a cooperation between VTT and Aalto University. 

Our starting point is fundamental research, but the idea is to quickly implement the results in applications. The FinnCERES ecosystem offers a direct communication channel to industry. 

VTT and Aalto University have a long history of research cooperation. The flagship aims to form an entire ecosystem to advance economic growth by developing new business opportunities. This would not be possible without the national bioeconomy infrastructure in Otaniemi, Espoo. 

- We have not had these kinds of flagship programmes in Finland before. In addition to conducting research, we will involve businesses and other financing opportunities. Internationalisation is also an important aspect to ensure the success of the flagship, which is important for the Finnish national economy, Tammelin explains. 

Tammelin was appointed Research Professor in Biomaterials Engineering and Design at VTT and head of the FinnCERES project at the beginning of December 2018. At Aalto University, the project is headed by Professor Orlando Rojas from the School of Chemical Engineering. 

Plant functionality into materials

The components of plant materials, namely lignocellulose, are cellulose, lignin and hemicellulose. The main component – cellulose – is hygroscopic and hydrophilic, which means that cellulose absorbs and retains water. This is why the water interactions of lignocellulose play a key role in many of the ongoing research projects in FinnCERES. This property, often considered a disadvantage, can be turned into an advantage. 

- Paper loses its strength characteristics when placed in water. Therefore, most of the research in the field has been focused on eliminating the effect of water. However, water is practically a structural element in wood, and holds herbaceous plants upright,"says Eero Kontturi, Professor of Materials Chemistry of Cellulose at Aalto University.  

The association of water to the surface of lignocellulose is studied at the molecular level and at the nanoscale. According to VTT's Senior Scientist Suvi Arola, the results can also be transferred to the macroscopic scale.

- The association with water is enhanced at nanoscale, making it easier to study the interactions. The same phenomena occur in paper and textile fibres or in any cellulosic material.

Usually, massive instruments like powerful electron microscopes and sensitive X-ray equipment are needed to reveal tiny structures.

- We're taking the reverse approach. By covering a cellulose molecule with a layer of water and examining how many water molecules it can absorb, we can make fundamental conclusions about the structure and dimensions of cellulose, explains Kontturi. 

At the same time, it is possible to study how water behaves on the surface of cellulose: Does it act as individual molecules or as a uniform film of moisture? Even moist air produces a surface layer on lignocellulose in which a large part of the overall structure is water. The researchers in FinnCERES are seeking to implement plant functionalities in new biomaterials.

- Actually, all functionalities of plant cell walls are based on interactions with water. By increasing our understanding of these interactions, we can create materials that take advantage of the strong role of water, says Tammelin.

Added value for pulp mill side streams 

One of the FinnCERES themes is the development of new technologies to be used in the process industry. Paper is made from wood by removing lignin, which gives wood its brown colour and glues the fibres together. The mainstream technology used for lignin removal, the Kraft process, has already been in place for 150 years. Modern pulp mills are biorefineries where lignin is burned into energy and that utilise the process side streams. 

- The molecules of the side streams can be further refined. For example, lignin could be converted into chemicals that could provide added value or be more environmentally efficient, Kontturi describes.

Tammelin says that FinnCERES can contribute to pulp mill processes, for which new methods can be developed to separate the fibre components.  

- We can provide more diverse use of the structural components of lignocellulose if they can be separated more cleanly and efficiently.

Bleached pulp is the most important raw material that can be refined into nanocellulose. Nanocellulose can, in turn, be used to produce transparent materials, and even composites when combined with other materials. In this regard, cellulose has the potential to replace plastics.

- Nanocellulose has properties that are needed in water purification: plenty of active surface and adsorption capacity. Removal of microplastics from water could be one potential application area, remarks Arola.

The flagship has ambitious goals.

- Our goal is to find material properties in lignocellulose that have not been utilised or even known before, Tammelin sums up. 

New research initiatives every year

In the spring of 2018, FinnCERES received EUR 9.5 million in funding from the Academy of Finland for the first four years, after which funding for another four-year period will be decided. The research programme will be updated as the project progresses. 

- There will be a call for new research initiatives every year, ensuring the continuous renewal of the programme, says Tammelin.

At the moment, 13 research projects are underway, including some 80 researchers. In addition to the research projects, the FinnCERES community is building the FinnCERES ecosystem that companies can join. 

- We are building an ecosystem on top of the flagship, and it may include research programmes other than those funded by the Academy of Finland. 

The Academy of Finland has also selected five other flagships into its flagship programme. In addition to FinnCERES, VTT and Aalto University are also involved in the Finnish Center for Artificial Intelligence and the Photonics Research and Innovation flagships. The other three flagships are 6Genesis, the 6G-Enabled Wireless Smart Society and Ecosystem; the Digital Precision Cancer Medicine Platform; and the Inequalities, Interventions, and New Welfare State flagship.

 

 

VTT Impulsehttps://www.vttresearch.com/ImpulseVTT Impulse
Towards carbon-neutral materialshttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/Towards-carbon-neutral-materials.aspxTowards carbon-neutral materials
Towards patient-centred, personalised healthcarehttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/Towards-patient-centred-personalised-healthcare.aspxTowards patient-centred, personalised healthcare
Cyber security modelled on the vaccination programmehttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/Cyber-security-modelled-on-the-vaccination-programme.aspxCyber security modelled on the vaccination programme
A better world based on positive energyhttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/A-better-world-based-on-positive-energy.aspxA better world based on positive energy
A birthday gift from us to ourselveshttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/A-birthday-gift-from-us-to-ourselves.aspxA birthday gift from us to ourselves
All sights on generationhttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/All-sights-on-generation.aspxAll sights on generation
Are environmental claims believable?https://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/Are-environmental-claims-believable.aspxAre environmental claims believable?
Better beer based on long-term researchhttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/Better-beer-based-on-long-term-research.aspxBetter beer based on long-term research
Boost for propeller developmenthttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/Boost-for-propeller-development.aspxBoost for propeller development
Challenges conceal opportunitieshttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/Challenges-conceal-opportunities.aspxChallenges conceal opportunities
Comfy but energy efficient homeshttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/Comfy-but-energy-efficient-homes.aspxComfy but energy efficient homes
Designers needed in printed technologyhttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/Designers-needed-in-printed-technology.aspxDesigners needed in printed technology
Developers of the futurehttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/Developers-of-the-future.aspxDevelopers of the future
Tua Huomo: Energy production and use – smart choices have an impacthttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/Energy-production-and-use–smart-choices-an-impact.aspxTua Huomo: Energy production and use – smart choices have an impact
From a fishing port to a model district for smart energyhttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/From-a-fishing-port-to-a-model-district-for-smart-energy.aspxFrom a fishing port to a model district for smart energy
Intelligence for machineshttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/Intelligence-for-machines.aspxIntelligence for machines
LEO brings intelligence to cylindershttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/LEO-brings-intelligence-to-cylinders.aspxLEO brings intelligence to cylinders
Minister of Energy would like to expand emissions tradinghttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/Minister-of-Energy-would-like-to-expand-emissions-trading.aspxMinister of Energy would like to expand emissions trading
More than siliconhttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/More-than-just-Silicon.aspxMore than silicon
Petri Kalliokoski: Artificial intelligence moves from words to deedshttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/Petri-Kalliokoski-Artificial-intelligence-moves-from-words-to-deeds.aspxPetri Kalliokoski: Artificial intelligence moves from words to deeds
Same old routine for the next 100 yearshttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/Same-old-routine-for-the-next-100-years.aspxSame old routine for the next 100 years
Clearing the way for new materials with ChemSheet technologyhttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/Clearing-the-way-for-new-materials-with-ChemSheet-technology.aspxClearing the way for new materials with ChemSheet technology
VTT Impulsehttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/MainPage.aspxVTT Impulse
What's going on in Australia?https://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/Whats-going-on-in-Australia.aspxWhat's going on in Australia?
Salofa creates rapid tests for monitoring health and the environmenthttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/Salofa-creates-rapid-tests-for-monitoring-health-and-the-environment.aspxSalofa creates rapid tests for monitoring health and the environment
Modelling and simulation facilitateshttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/Modelling-and-simulation-facilitates.aspxModelling and simulation facilitates
Tracking peoplehttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/Tracking-people.aspxTracking people
Impulse 2/2014https://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/Impulse-2-2014.aspxImpulse 2/2014
Bio-based carbon dioxide to be recycled in Nokiahttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/Bio-based-carbon-dioxide-to-be-recycled-in-Nokia.aspxBio-based carbon dioxide to be recycled in Nokia
Health and wellbeinghttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/Health-and-wellbeing.aspxHealth and wellbeing
Low carbon energyhttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/Low-carbon-energy.aspxLow carbon energy
Smart industryhttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/Smart-industry.aspxSmart industry
Bioeconomy and circular economyhttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/Bioeconomy-and-circular-economy.aspxBioeconomy and circular economy
Digital societyhttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/Digital-society.aspxDigital society
Smart Citieshttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/Smart-Cities.aspxSmart Cities
Quantum standards for the new SI systemhttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/Quantum-standards-for-the-new-SI-system.aspxQuantum standards for the new SI system
By measuring you can improvehttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/By-measuring-you-can-improve.aspxBy measuring you can improve
Digitalization in RTOs: Speeding up the development of bio-based technologies with digitalizationhttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/Digitalisation-in-RTOs-Speeding-up-the-development-of-bio-based-technologies-with-digitalization.aspxDigitalization in RTOs: Speeding up the development of bio-based technologies with digitalization
Business developmenthttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/Business-development.aspxBusiness development
Swift and agile in business and in the foresthttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/Swift-and-agile-in-business-and-in-the-forest.aspxSwift and agile in business and in the forest
Could smartglasses replace smartphones? VTT spin-off Dispelix to commercialise a virtual display for glasseshttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/Could-smartglasses-replace-smartphones-VTT-spin-off-Dispelix-to-commercialise-a-virtual-display-for-glasses.aspxCould smartglasses replace smartphones? VTT spin-off Dispelix to commercialise a virtual display for glasses
At the digital forefront of mininghttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/At-the-digital-forefront-of-mining.aspxAt the digital forefront of mining
Business for transportationhttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/Business-for-transportation.aspxBusiness for transportation
Finnish fuel cell technology aims for the worldhttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/Finnish-fuel-cell-technology-aims-for-the-world.aspxFinnish fuel cell technology aims for the world
Converting rags to design clotheshttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/Converting-rags-to-design-clothes.aspxConverting rags to design clothes
How to become a leading country in flexible energy production systemshttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/How-to-become-a-leading-country-in-flexible-energy-production-systems.aspxHow to become a leading country in flexible energy production systems
Impulse 1/2015https://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/Impulse-1-2015.aspxImpulse 1/2015
Senior Scientist Jukka Hemila, VTT: From technology hype to customer understandinghttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/Senior-Scientist-Jukka-Hemila-VTT-From-technology-hype-to-customer-understanding.aspxSenior Scientist Jukka Hemila, VTT: From technology hype to customer understanding
Digitalisation of the shipping industry requires cutting-edge researchhttps://www.vttresearch.com/Impulse/Pages/Digitalisation-of-the-shipping-industry-requires-cutting-edge-research.aspxDigitalisation of the shipping industry requires cutting-edge research