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Bio-chemical futures


Finland is home to one of Europe’s largest chemical industries, but the country is putting huge resources into R&D that will steer it away from a future dependent on fossil fuels. Here are some examples of innovation that are moving the country in the direction of a bioeconomy.

The non-profit VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland is the biggest multi-technological applied research organization in Northern Europe. With 3,000 researchers on staff, it provides a variety of high-end technology solutions and innovation services across different disciplines and technologies. It collaborates closely with universities and industry and sometimes acts as a contract researcher for industry. The organization’s work is international in scope, and it maintains offices in China and Japan, and recently opened one in Berkeley, CA.

VTT has positioned itself as a key provider of bioeconomy-related research. It defines a bioeconomy as the continued development and application of biotechnology to foster the development of bio-based economy to an economically feasible level, and its goal is to move society away from a reliance on fossil fuels.

Some 500 of the organization’s researchers are working on developing Finland’s bioeconomy sector. Its researchers work in multi-disciplinary environments so they can combine key enabling technologies to pulp and paper, food, energy, chemical and material production competencies.

For Finland, the challenges facing its chemical industry are significant for its economy. The industry’s annual output is worth 16 billion euros and it employs 35,000 workers in the country – 10% of its manufacturing workforce.

The changes facing the chemical industry include a move from a petroleum-based platform to a biomass-derived biochemical platform. In addition, the pulp and paper industry is struggling to compete with competitors in developing countries. The VTT’s goal is to use biomass in their processes, and is developing biorefinery products, biotech and bio-enabled products. In its research, it uses mainly forest-derived biomass feedstock and to a lesser extent, agricultural, according to Anne-Christine Ritschkoff, VTT’s executive vice president.

For example, the organization is working with Finnish oil company Neste in a demo plant to produce electricity with biomass. In another project, its researchers are taking wood pulp feedstock and reducing it to nanoscale fibres. These can be used to produce extremely thin but strong sheets for audio products.

Cellulose-based textile fibres

Avilon is a Finnish company that specializes in making viscose, which is a cellulose-based textile fibre. The company’s production includes specialty fibres such as a non-toxic fire-resistant viscose.

Heikki Hassi, Avilon’s CEO, explains that although viscose has been around for more than 100 years, it is receiving new attention as the availability of cotton declines, due to reduction in suitable arable land with plenty of water and continued rises in price. In addition, the cost of other man-made fibres, such as polyester, is rising due to petroleum price inflation.

Driven by the cost of cotton, the price of high purity dissolving pulp for viscose has also been rising due to its use as a cotton substitute, so Avilon has developed a highly efficient new technology that converts paper-grade pulp into viscose-grade pulp. The company has its own R&D labs and trial production facilities, but also worked with research institutes and universities in Finland in developing this technology, mainly VTT and Tampere University.

“It’s a very important new technology, and highly efficient,” says Mr Hassi.

Bioethanol from waste

ST1, a Finnish energy company. researches and develops economically viable and environmentally sustainable energy solutions. A major initiative has been to process bioethanol from waste. Using technology originally developed with VTT, the company is philosophically opposed to using food as a feedstock for energy, according to the company’s managing director, Mika Wiljanen.

The company has developed an award-winning process called EtanolixTM for making ethanol. The method uses waste food products, such as waste from bakery manufacturing, as a raw material. The production facility is a small scale, easy-to-build, modular production unit that can be built near the waste source (such as a large bakery) to minimize transportation. The product is transferred to a nearby dehydration plant while leftover product is sent for agricultural use. After dehydration, the finished product is sent for storage and to the pump for retail sale. The company owns a chain of gas stations across Finland, and their ethanol will be available nationwide at the end of this year. The ethanol is optimized to function in all environments and operates at -25ºC.

The Etanolix method makes makes ethanol production profitable even on a small scale, and by 2020, the company plans to have 300 million litres of capacity, says Mr Wiljanen.

In addition, the production process, logistics relating to fuel deliveries and the use of ethanol in fuels will help reduce carbon dioxide emissions and environmental loading. At the same time, the process offers a new solution for dealing with waste from the food processing industry and helps to significantly cut down the amount of waste.

The company is also currently working on moving into using other raw materials such as straw, and later forest industry waste products, Mr Wiljanen adds.

As a driver of innovation in Finland, VTT will continue in its mission to help the country’s industry toward a bioeconomy.

“We want to achieve a society not totally dependent on fossil fuels,” says the organization’s Anne-Christine Ritschkoff. “We are facing the biggest reorientation of industry since World War Two.”