Unique industrial ecosystem  in Äänekoski

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. Even before the bioproduct mill, half a dozen industrial plants existed in the densest part of the ecosystem in Äänekoski.

In addition to Metsä Group, companies that have operated in Äänekoski for several decades include the chemical plants of Nouryon Chemicals Finland and Specialty Minerals Nordic, as well as Valio's cheese factory.

"Nouryon Chemicals Finland 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

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. Metsä Group has done close cooperation with various partners, such as the city of Äänekoski.

In April 2018, the town administration of Äänekoski and its partners started the Plänet 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.

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 percent 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 to produce wood-based textile fibres. Demo plant is located next to Metsä Group’s bioproduct mill in Äänekoski and is due to begin operations in 2020.

"The process uses non-dried paper pulp of bioproduct mill as raw material. The test plant is designed to demonstrate a new technology for converting paper-grade pulp into more sustainabletextile fibres. It's important that new bioproducts are developed and the forest industry product portfolio is expanded in Finland," says von Weymarn.