Lappeenranta University of Technology LUT, is a science university focusing on technology and economics, with about 5,000 students and more than 500 teaching and research staff. The chemical engineering programme at the LUT Faculty of Engineering trains specialists designing new and cleaner production methods that improve the adequacy of energy, water and natural resources and the condition of the environment.
Associate professor Mari Kallioinen directs the Department of Separation and Purification Technology. Separation technology focuses on ways of separating various raw materials, and is also an integral part of the pulp manufacturing process, and such challenges as further reducing the amount of water that it requires. Kallioinen reports that the LUT team is an international leader in understanding phenomena related to water purification or recovery of components from various solutions:
“We have spent decades researching separation technology, and our instruments enable practical studies of phenomena in equipment that clearly exceeds the laboratory scale. Some phenomena, for instance fouling of the separation matrices, cannot really be seen in the way that it happens in real life at the mill site, if the volume of the examined solution is too small.”
Her own research background is in membrane technology and filtration, which are similarly applied for purifying forest industry process water, and she also leads the interdisciplinary LUT Re-source research platform seeking to enhance resource efficiency.
A strong focus on separation technology and on the associated range of methods makes LUT a unique institute of higher education in Finland in the field of chemical engineering. The university has also gained prominence as an active seeker of solutions for clean energy and water, circular economy, and sustainable business.
THEORY AND PRACTICAL EXPERTISE
Associate Professor Eeva Jernström serves as Vice-Dean of the LENS School of Engineering Science, with particular teaching and research interests in biorefining. She explains that industrial collaboration lies at the core of all activities at LUT:
“We share the same goal with businesses, even though our approaches differ. We are not content to stay at the level of academic research, but prefer to see research findings carried forward into practical applications.”
Appointed VP Research at Metsä Fibre with effect from this summer, Anna Suurnäkki explains that while the company is keen to be involved in high-quality research that aims for new innovations, it is equally important for educational institutions to train the professionals of the future. It is also essential for Finland to retain the finest expertise in the field.
“We expect our research partners to have an in-depth understanding of relevant process phenomena, coupled with a vision of future technologies and their closeness to deployment. We make extensive use of outside research resources in our R&D work, engaging in ongoing dialogue with researchers accordingly. Networking and long-term partnerships with research teams are very important to us,” Suurnäkki stresses.
Kallioinen adds that even though the university also seeks innovations and solutions, its results are still measured in academic degrees and publications:
“Our consistent ability to deliver highly valued and verified scientific results also testifies to our quality as a partner for industry.”
COLLABORATION THROUGHOUT THE VALUE CHAIN
Research collaboration typically arises in the context of broader co-financed programmes involving several partners. Metsä Fibre and LUT were most recently involved in a project that ended last spring, seeking to separate heavy metals from the green liquor dregs that form as a by-product of pulp manufacturing. The fibre suspension sludge created in processing could be used as agricultural fertiliser and as a soil improver. Although the project tested a separation method, this currently remains too expensive for commercial deployment.
Metsä Fibre’s Development Manager R&D Raili Koponen stresses that finding sustainable solutions for the utilisation of side streams in a pulp mill is one of the focus areas in development. The company’s bioproduct mill in Äänekoski was designed to use production side streams for manufacturing products of optimal added value, i.e. its own process chemicals. The industrial ecosystem developing around the mill continues to promote the commercialisation of new side streams into bioproducts.
“The most fruitful research projects for collaboration are those where the entire value chain is represented. As a pulp manufacturer, we nevertheless produce a raw material for the next operator to use. For example, we are currently engaged in a research project that involves us together with representatives of a paper manufacturer, a refiner and their customer. Such arrangements greatly accelerate progress,” Koponen says.
IMPROVING WATER EFFICIENCY
One commonly discussed aspect of the highly progressive new setup at Äänekoski is its optimised use of water. About 12 tonnes of waste-water currently reaches the biological treatment plant for each tonne of pulp manufactured. Kallioinen explains that many opportunities for
reducing water use and recovering components still remain available at
various stages of production:
“For example, we could use separation technologies to reduce the chemical oxygen demand of plant effluent, and recyclable metals could also be recovered at some point in the water cycle. The debarking unit effluent is also of interest for phenolic compounds that could become the basis of a new product if they could be cost-effectively recovered and processed.”
The economic sustainability of a new concept is a particularly critical consideration in process industry, which requires a clear understanding of the added value generated by any investment. Kallioinen notes that reducing wastewater quantities by more efficient internal water recycling and purification would not significantly increase operating costs at the mill. Water treatment processes could also be targeted more specifically:
“There is no absolute need to direct all types of process effluent into the same treatment system. Other industries and local authorities are already considering the use of targeted treatment plants for their wastewater. For example, certain compounds such as the drugs typically found in hospital effluent could be more cost-effectively removed in a targeted treatment plant.”
VERSATILE SKILLS FOR THE WORLD OF WORK
In the context of future university-trained employees, Jernström concludes by pointing out that educational institutions must always dialogue with the business community to determine desirable skills for young graduates entering industry. This also helps in syllabus development. Suurnäkki at least stresses the willingness to learn through practical working experience, as production processes are only fully understood by the people using them on site.
“Working in project teams and the status of each individual as part of a team, for example, are included as aspects of training in all of our educational programmes. Most young people are quite willing to put on overalls and engage in real mill work,” Jernström explains.
Everyone agrees that the specialists of the future will not only need to be innovative, but also capable of adapting and working in a team. The forest industry must also continue to stand by its sustainable values, as young people these days are increasingly aware when considering their career options.