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Towards bioeconomy with the power of wood

Paula Bergqvist | 26.5.2015

​Finland’s rich wood resources are transformed into an increasing array of materials, of which VTT has a multitude of examples to show. 

In Finland, wood grows at a faster rate than it is used. The annual growth is more than 100 million cubic metres, of which the industry uses only approximately 50 million. It would be possible to use some 70 million cubic metres of wood annually and still remain on a sustainable level.

– As regards the use of wood, we clearly pass the criteria of sustainable development. Regardless of this, exploitation of forestry resources could be more efficient and economical, says Anne-Christine Ritschkoff, VTT’s Executive Vice President, Strategic Research. 

– The new products need to be affordable and as good as plastic – or even better. We have to establish business value chains in Finland to launch new business operations.

VTT advances public bioeconomy projects and assignments by contributing 600 man-years for the purpose. 24 per cent of VTT’s turnover is associated with bioeconomy. In addition to biotechnology and chemistry, in these R&D activities VTT uses, for example, process technology and business know-how.


 

​A die-cast cup with almost 80% of wood-based materials, fibres and lignin. VTT has developed the manufacturing method in the FIBIC’s FuBio programme.  ​

Wood is a versatile material

Researchers can adapt wood biomass to nano­cellulose, chemicals, drugs, food products and feed with varying characteristics. By affecting the cell metabolism, it is possible to produce special chemicals from sugars, including isoprene, carotenoides, fragrances and substitutes for rubber. 

The pulp cooking process is currently under development for the purpose of producing textiles. In Finland, it would be possible to achieve production rates of regenerated cellulosic fibres with a value of EUR 8–10 billion. The VTT ­laboratory in Jyväskylä is already spinning ­cellulosic yarn. The development is conducted in ­collaboration with Aalto University and Tampere University of Technology. The common vision is to create future design products from Finnish wood.  

The least exploited component of wood is lignin, 50 million tonnes of which is annually ­generated in industrial processes worldwide. As fuel, lignin is worth EUR 50–100 per tonne. ­However, more valuable uses for lignin could also be found.

There are already products in the markets containing a small amount of lignin, but VTT aims to raise its share on a new level. 

– The claim that anything else can be made of lignin but money is no longer true, says VTT Research Professor Kristiina Kruus.

Wood material or wood-based raw material­ not suited for production of fibre-based products­ can be ‘blown up’, thus opening its structure to be used as original material for the production of sugars, and further, chemicals and fuels. VTT has developed methods by which plant cell walls are dissolved and further broken down to sugars, to be used in production of ethanol. St1 Biofuels and VTT have made an agreement on research aiming at optimisation of the wood-based production process.  


 

Anna Suurnäkki and Kristiina Kruus presenting the newest biomaterials developed at VTT.

New material solutions of wood

In recent years, the Finnish forestry industry has shown interest in every valuable components found in wood biomass, and achieved visible results: new tall oil-based biodiesel and nanocellulose products have entered the market. 

Anna Suurnäkki, Principal Research Scientist at VTT presents products of tomorrow developed at VTT. One of them is a bag suited for dry foodstuffs, such as peanuts, consisting of three bio-based layers – each with a special task for protecting the product. One of the layers is a nanocellulose film that can be used for other applications as well, such as a printing platform for electronics. 

– We have developed the properties of fibre-based packages to make them more mouldable and lighter.

By foaming materials it is possible to make protective packaging, insulants and other porous materials with good thermal insulation, or shock or sound absorption properties. They could replace, for example, currently used packaging materials for refrigerated products, or function as composites that can be burned after use.

In the field of celluloce-based textile fibres, VTT has developed new dissolution methods suited for viscose and lyocell processes, and methods by which continuous fibre yarn can be spun from cellulose without the dissolution of the cellulosic fibre. By using foam, fibres of different lengths have also been run on a paper machine into non-woven fabric. 

– In the future, recycling of textile ­products containing cellulosic fibres will become more important, when legislation concerning dumping­ of organic waste in landfills becomes stricter. Therefore, from the very early stages of development, we consider how cellulose could be recovered after use and employed, for example, in the manufacture of new textiles, says Suurnäkki.


 

Polyurethane, the cheap and light packaging material also known as expanded polystyre, is an environmental problem. VTT has been developing both fibre foam technologies and foam forming techniques for biopolymers that could be used for producing, for example, bio-based materials to replace polyurethane.

More efficient combustion 

In spite of everything, some of the wood material still ends up as raw material for energy. For energy production purposes VTT develops also thermal processes – gasification and pyrolysis – to make them more efficient. Within the next few months, such research will transfer to new research facilities at Kivenlahti, ­Espoo. VTT’s Bioruukki will become a place where companies can test the functionality of their ideas.


 

Metsä Fibre is designing a bio-product plant in Äänekoski

The existing Äänekoski pulp mill is almost 30 years old. Metsä Fibre, part of Metsä Group, decided to design a larger plant with more versatile uses to replace the pulp mill nearing the end of its life cycle. The decision was affected by the good availability of wood in Finland, and the increasing global demand for softwood pulp.

– The project is still pending final investment decision. It requires an environmental permit and completion of pre-engineering. If everything goes well, the new bioproduct mill will enter production in autumn  2017, says Niklas von Weymarn, Vice President, ­Research, at Metsä Fibre.

At first, the new plant will not differ much from the old one. 

– We have envisioned that alongside pulp production, we would have totally new product lines running in addition to the current side products. Whether they will be ready in the first phase of production – that is still difficult to say. The goal is that the plant would eventually evolve into a modern multi-product entity.


 

Significant business out of side products

Metsä Fibre’s current side products of pulp production include turpentine, tall oil, electricity, steam, district heat, bark and wood chip screenings. In 2013, the company turnover was approximately EUR 1.3 billion, of which the above-mentioned side products already accounted for more than 10 per cent.

The biggest side streams that the plant could use in novel ways include bark, wood chip screenings, and lignin. They are currently utilised for energy production. Von Weymarn believes that, in the future, much more valuable uses will be found for lignin. 


 

VTT acts as trailblazer

– VTT has an important role to play as a trailblazer and creator of competence platforms required for new business activity. FIBIC’s FuBio programme, under which companies have been promoting their best ideas in collaboration with VTT, serves as a good example of this.​

 

 

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