Metsä Group's next-generation bioproduct mill is making Äänekoski the Silicon Valley of the bioeconomy. A multifaceted business ecosystem is expanding around the bioproduct mill, creating jobs and developing bioproducts of the future that can be used to replace fossil fuels and materials.
"The word ecosystem is increasingly being used to describe interaction between companies and other organisations. In a business ecosystem, companies of different sizes work together and form symbiotic relationships. One company's product is another's raw material," explains Niklas von Weymarn, CEO of Metsä Spring, an innovation company established by Metsä Group.
Over the decades, industrial plants and services that support their operations have emerged around Metsä Group's activities in Äänekoski. These are all part of the local business ecosystem. In addition to Metsä Group, companies that have operated in Äänekoski for several decades include the chemical plants of CP Kelco and Minerals Nordic, as well as Valio's cheese factory.
"CP Kelco processes pulp produced by Metsä Fibre into a chemical called carboxymethyl cellulose, which is used as a thickener in ice cream and toothpaste, for example. Valio makes use of the heat generated by the bioproduct mill in its cheese production," von Weymarn says.
Continuously developing business network
Even before the bioproduct mill, half a dozen industrial plants existed in the densest part of the ecosystem in Äänekoski. When the bioproduct mill was being planned, Metsä Group saw an opportunity and a need to operate in a manner that would facilitate the ecosystem.
In April 2018, the town administration of Äänekoski and its partners started the Planet B project to create new business opportunities related to the bioeconomy and the circular economy in Äänekoski, in response to the Government of Finland's bioeconomy strategy. The project seeks to find cooperation models that enable companies in various sectors and at different development stages to make use of the local infrastructure and raw material resources.
"The innovations of the future will be created through cooperation. As a bioeconomy ecosystem, Äänekoski is unique in the world, creating new business operations across sectors," says von Weymarn.
The further development of the bioproduct mill complex also involves the development of business models in which a company other than Metsä Group is responsible for the business operations and the underlying production. One example of this is the partner company EcoEnergy SF. Its biogas plant is unique, even globally. EcoEnergy SF produces biogas and biofuel pellets from the sludge generated at the wastewater treatment plant of the bioproduct mill.
"Another good example is our partner company Aqvacomp. Their plant processes pulp into biocomposite that can be used to replace plastic in the electronics and automotive industries, for example. The first production plant was built in the mill area of Metsä Group's Rauma pulp mill. Aqvacomp is exploring the possibility of building a larger plant in Äänekoski."
Making use of production side streams
New bioproducts are proof of the fact that Metsä Group and its ecosystem partners actively seek to find new uses for pulp and production side streams. Their goal is to create bioproduct concepts that use 100 per cent of the wood raw material and the production side streams.
"We are better able to make use of bark, for example, and process it into product gas, a biofuel for our mill. This is achieved through gasification. This is key in running the bioproduct mill completely without fossil energy. This is the world's first mill that needs no fossil energy at all.
The bioproduct mill's sulphuric acid unit converts odorous gases into sulphuric acid for the mill's own use. It is the first sulphuric acid unit in the world to be connected to a pulp production process on this scale. This will take the bioproduct mill significantly closer to a closed chemical cycle.
The innovation company Metsä Spring seeks to find and develop new, forward-looking business concepts for Metsä Group. For example, the company establish with Japanese Itochu Corporation a joint venture, which invests approximately EUR 40 million in building and operating a test plant, with the aim to demonstrate a new technology for converting paper-grade pulp into textile fibres. The intended capacity of the plant is around 500 tonnes per year, in conjunction with Metsä Group's bioproduct mill in Äänekoski. Construction of the demo plant began in October 2018 and it is planned to be started up in late 2019.
"The process uses non-dried paper pulp as raw material. The new method more environmentally friendly than the current options. It's important that new bioproducts are developed and the forest industry product portfolio is expanded in Finland," says von Weymarn.