New bioproducts are moving from labs to industrial production.
At its pilot plant in Rauma, Aqvacomp Oy is making a biocomposite from pulp and plastic that can be used for manufacturing a number of different products. The technology patented by the company does not break down the structure of the pulp fibres. The biocomposite can replace glass-fibre-reinforced plastic in furniture, for example, as well as in home electronics and the automobile industry.
MI Demo, a joint venture between Metsä Group’s innovation company Metsä Spring and Itochu Corporation, is starting up its demo plant, which produces textile fibres from pulp, next to the Äänekoski bioproduct mill. Metsä Spring has also made an equity investment in Woodio, which develops and manufactures entirely waterproof wood composites.
Biocomposites and textile fibres are excellent examples of new bioproducts. Their raw material is softwood pulp made from renewable raw wood material. In addition, both are what are referred to as ‘drop-in materials’, which can be used as they are in industrial processes to replace oil-based materials.
Product ranges are expanding with new, pulp-based bioproducts
As part of Metsä Fibre’s strategy, new, pulp-based bioproducts will expand and diversify the company’s existing product range.
“Pulp will still be important, but it will also be accompanied by other, increasingly strong products. In the production of textile fibre, for example, pulp is being converted further, and the pulp we produce is entering a new value chain, one it hasn’t been used for before. This will create entirely new revenue,” says Katariina Kemppainen, Development Manager at Metsä Fibre.
“The demand for increasingly ecological products is sure to grow. From our point of view, the opportunity is unique, given that textile fibre made from our softwood pulp can be directly used to produce yarn, and that it can also replace cotton fibre and fibres made from oil.”
The further conversion of pulp is economical and sometimes even mandatory to implement, particularly in connection with a pulp mill. This was an essential starting point when Metsä Fibre was planning the concept of a new kind of bioproduct mill.
A bioproduct mill recovers all useful components of wood and uses them to produce other bioproducts alongside pulp. In a traditional pulp mill, pulp accounts for some 90 per cent of net sales, while other products make up the remaining 10 per cent. In a bioproduct mill, the corresponding ratio is 80/20. The fractions not fit for converting are used in the process as bioenergy.
The first bioproduct mill has been operating in Äänekoski since 2017. The company plans to build its next bioproduct mill in Kemi.
Becoming big in new bioproducts
Metsä Fibre is the world’s biggest producer of softwood market pulp. It is natural for the company to have big ambitions in terms of new bioproducts as well.
“We’re not going after small markets. When we develop new bioproducts, we’re pursuing markets with a sufficiently big annual production. Before embarking on long-term development work, we must be convinced of big volumes which would make a difference in sales.”
The company is not planning to go it alone. Rather, Metsä Fibre is aiming for what are referred to as ‘industrial ecosystems’, in which companies operating close to each other work in cooperation. Side streams are used efficiently. The end product of one operator can be another one’s raw material.
“We don’t need to make all the end products ourselves. It’s also the role of Metsä Spring and the other partners to further convert the pulp,” summarised Kemppainen.
Traditional bioproducts are also important
Pulp and bioproduct mills also always generate biochemicals, such as turpentine and tall oil, as by-products of pulp. They are often forgotten when talking about bioproducts.
“We shouldn’t underestimate turpentine and tall oil. They’re great products, and useful raw materials for the chemical industry.”
Lignin, the substance that ties wood fibres together, is another interesting by-product for which we may be able to find many applications for in the future.
“We’re still looking for a superior solution for lignin. Right now, it’s being developed into a concrete plasticiser.”
A bioproduct mill also produces intermediate products in line with the principle of the circular economy, some of which derive from biomass.
“For example, fossil fuels at Äänekoski have been replaced with renewable fuels. The process burns wood gas derived from tree bark. Instead of selling it to customers, it’s a bioproduct essential for our entire process, which we keep in our internal circulation. We could also sell wood gas, as it can serve as a raw material for other products when purified.”
Bioproducts also include bioenergy products, such as solid wood-based fuels and electricity produced from biomass. The Äänekoski bioproduct mill’s process generates so much electricity that it is sold to the national grid.
Partners also include financiers and equipment suppliers
According to Kemppainen, it is clear that Metsä Fibre will continue to study bioproducts based on wood raw material. In many cases, the development work, as well as the creation of markets and introducing the products to the markets, requires time and investments.
Partners also play an important role in development work.
“The forest industry cannot identify what the world needs all by itself. When we’re in new value chains, we have to partner up with potential customers who can outline the market for us and engage in the development process. The value chain is built together, one piece at a time.”
What kinds of partners are required for this work?
“Metsä Spring give us good contacts with start-up companies. Financiers and equipment suppliers are also important partners. New products always require new equipment.”
There are plenty of questions that need answering: Does the technology work? Is it scalable? How will the new production line be integrated into pulp production?
“The closer we get to the core processes of pulp production, the more careful we need to be. We can’t risk the functionality of the process or the product’s quality,” says Kemppainen.
The work is demanding, but the opportunities are enormous. The carbon footprint of the textile industry, for one, is unreasonably large in its present state, and will have to be cut. MI Demo’s pulp-based textile fibres represent one of the most promising solutions in this respect. Based on a preliminary life cycle assessment, their environmental impact is on par with, or smaller than, the impact of other wood-based fibres, and significantly smaller than the impact of cotton.