"I see ‘bio-based’ and ‘sustainable’ used a lot more now than ten years ago. And I think this doesn’t only appeal to customers, but also to investors for whom this is a growing area of interest.”
Reviewing some of the stories making headlines in 2008 brought back some interesting memories – Barrack Obama facing off against the late John McCain for the US Presidency, the Dark Knight, topping the film charts and Greece being the surprise winners of the European Championships. Whilst in Stockholm the year before, a small group of wood bio-refinery professionals led by Dr. Peter Axegård came up with the idea to create a joint Nordic Biorefinery Conference. Peter’s friends and colleagues at VTT, KCL and Åbo Akademi were instantly very supportive. Rapidly thereafter they launched the first Nordic Wood Biorefinery Conference (NWBC).
Since that first event, six additional conferences have followed, alternating between Finland and Sweden, with the 8th one confirmed for the Scandic Marina Congress Center in Helsinki on October 23-25 2018. As the next NWBC approaches, our editor Luke Upton, sat down with two of the founders of the NWBC, Dr. Peter Axegård and Dr. Klaus Niemelä, to learn about that early event, assess some changes in the decade since and suggest some key current industry trends.
The 2018 NWBC is hosted by VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, and its three days will include keynote lectures, expert panel discussions as well as, submitted oral and poster technical presentations, and extensive opportunities for networking.
“When we launched the conference, there were already several smaller events, but we wanted one that truly bridged commercialisation and science and we wanted to put Sweden and Finland in the centre. We wanted the first event to give a good overview of developments in wood biorefining research plus commercialisation activities from not just Nordic countries but from around the world” says Peter, who in 2008 was working for STFI-Packforsk (later Innventia, now known as RISE Bioeconomy).
This focus is emphasised by Klaus from VTT, then working at KCL (the Finnish Pulp and Paper Research Institute); “Our aim from both 2008 and today is to ensure a good share of speakers coming from not just the forest industry but also from other industrial sectors, such as the chemical industry which use wood-based raw materials.” Of the 190 delegates at the first event, 85 came from industry and about 50 companies were represented, the majority from outside of the pulp and paper industry.
This first event was a success, and in 2009, the event moved across the Baltic sea to Helsinki, where more than 330 delegates attended. This alternating of locations between the two Nordic capitals has continued since.
So, in the decade since that opening event, what’s changed?
Klaus sees that many aspects of the industry have so far remained quite similar, although there are apparent ongoing shifts; “We are seeing more and more integrated sustainable biorefinery operations and a growth of new chemicals, materials and other products derived from current process streams or from different wastes and residues. It’s also been heartening to see one of our original goals, collaboration between the forest industry with other sectors, like chemical, food & feed and textiles is on the increase.”
For Peter, the economics of the bio-economy remain a challenge, but he sees an increased focus; “Companies have a clearer picture of what they want to achieve and more points for how to achieve this. I also see sharper emphasis on communication, which companies are better at now. I see ‘bio-based’ and ‘sustainable’ used a lot more now than ten years ago. And I think this doesn’t only appeal to customers, but also to investors for whom this is a growing area of interest.”
As we approach the eighth edition of the NWBC, I asked Dr. Eemeli Hytönen Technology Manager at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd and Chair of the event, what attendees could expect; “The event is fully packed with topical presentations on the latest developments in wood bio-refining.
For example, industrially relevant lignin processing and lignin applications, as well as bark utilisation are covered in the conference. Industry contribution to the panel discussions and oral presentations is higher than ever. We will also have a relaxed and topical evening programme at VTT’s Bioruukki piloting centre. There, not only will guests experience top-of-the-line biomass fractionation and thermochemical processing facilities, but will also have an excellent opportunity to network and discover future R&D cooperation themes.”
Speaking to all the team involved with the NWBC, what is obvious is their passion about the growth of the bio-economy, in particular when able to utilize the huge quantities of harvestable biomass available in the Nordic countries.
For Klaus there’s lots to be excited about; “Efforts by the growing numbers of SME’s working in the bio-economy, will lead to exciting new innovations on how to use wood-based raw materials. Extensive replacement of many important current oil-based chemicals and materials by those derived from wood; not only from cellulose and lignin but also from all other wood constituents will also develop further.
“In addition to the simple replacement of oil-based current products, the wood-based polymers and chemicals will also be used to manufacture totally new products not possible from oil. And finally, traditional pulp and paper type operations will be partially replaced by novel types of wood fractionation processes that can be tailored according to their needs” concluded Klaus.
Peter is similarly positive; “We’ve seen a major change in consumer attitudes to plastics in recent years, and paper is an ideal material to replace it in many goods. There’s a real revival in interest in paper packaging solutions – people are going back to it after a few decades away! It’s an exciting time and I am looking forward to seeing the industry continue to grow at NWBC and beyond.”
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