Pulp to lead the way for a textile revolution

​Metsä Fibre is progressing with its bioproduct concept, where all side streams of pulp production are utilized for new products and services, such as biogas, biocomposite materials and textile fibres.

TEXT: TIMO NYKÄNEN, PHOTOS: KATRI LEHTOLA & METSÄ GROUP

This February, at the busy construction site of the world’s first next-generation bioproduct mill in Äänekoski, Central Finland, Metsä Fibre revealed the latest steps in making the most of the mill’s potential. Expanding on the core production of high-quality softwood pulp, agreements have been signed for the construction of a biogas plant and a factory producing biocomposite materials, i.e. combining pulp fibre and plastics.

Earlier last year Metsä Fibre already decided to invest in a bark gasification plant, which produces bark-derived product gas for the bioproduct mill’s own use, making the mill fully free of any fossil fuels.

The biogas plant will be built and operated by EcoEnergy SF next to the bioproduct mill in Äänekoski, whereas the production plant for biocomposites, built and operated by Aqvacomp, will be integrated to Metsä Fibre’s pulp mill in Rauma. Biocomposite producer Aqvacomp is also exploring the possibility of building a bigger plant in Äänekoski once the bioproduct mill is operational.

According to Niklas von Weymarn, VP, Research at Metsä Fibre, building an ecosystem of partner companies around pulp production is a natural extension of Metsä Fibre’s core competencies.

“We consider all of our four pulp mills to be bioproduct mills at some point. We need to evaluate each development concept separately in order to find the best possible location for the specific concepts.”

FILLING THE CELLULOSE GAP

In addition to the three concepts already in implementation, Metsä Fibre is pushing forward additional concepts in its innovation pipeline. Examples include conversion of the odorous gases of the bioproduct mill into sulphuric acid and lignin-based products. Another promising concept is a novel process for the conversion of softwood pulp into textile fibres. The environmentally friendly process is based on ionic liquid technology originally developed in research programmes led by the Finnish Bioeconomy Cluster FIBIC, and currently promoted by innovation cluster CLIC Innovation.

In a textile market dominated by two raw materials – fossil oil and cotton – wood-based textile fibres are seen to have great future potential. Wood is also currently used as a raw material for textiles, but has only a minor role in the business. Population growth and better living standards increase the demand for food and energy, but also for textiles. However, increasing cotton production is challenging since it competes with arable land needed for the cultivation of food. It also requires substantial amounts of water and pesticides.

According to von Weymarn, cellulose-based textile fibres will be required to fill in the widening gap between increasing demand for textiles and the limited supply of especially cotton-based fibres.

“Today most production units converting wood-based pulp into textile fibres rely on the old viscose production process, which has a very negative environmental impact. New production processes with good environmental performance are thus urgently needed,” von Weymarn says.


 


 

global potentiaL IN TEXTILES

Developing the novel textile production process further, Metsä Fibre partnered with other companies to invest in laboratory-scale production equipment, installed at Aalto University in Finland. In a recently finished project, first concrete proofs that the new concept might actually work were obtained. Utilizing the said laboratory-scale equipment softwood pulp was processed all the way to an actual garment, a scarf. The results of the project function as a basis for considering a shift to pilot-plant scale.

Already a major player in the textile market, Japanese trading company Itochu Corporation, a part-owner of Metsä Fibre, will be in a crucial role when taking the new concept to the next level.

“We see world-wide expansion possibilities for cellulosic fibres, especially from an ecological point of view. Consumers are increasingly aware of sustainability issues also in the textile market,” says Itochu’s Keiji Takanashi.

Itochu’s deep experience of the cellulosic material trade and its global trade network of fibre and yarn, with offices in all major textile markets, can be utilised in the promotion and branding of the new textile fibre.

“The new textile fibre could be used as an exclusively-branded raw material. The concept is a good match with our marketing strategy and answers to the needs of a market looking for improved processes,” Takanashi says.

According to Takanashi, evaluation of the new concept will be carried out during this spring, after which a decision will be made on scaling up to pilot plant production level. Broad application tests will then be conducted, followed by the development of a business model.

“If we succeed in launching this new fibre, we can change the history of the textile industry. I believe we can truly create a new era in the market for cellulosic fibres,” Takanashi concludes.


 



 


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