For the average person on the street, wood would probably be the first bio-based material that would come to mind if asked. But wood-based plastics? Or even lignin? Well, with this most people would struggle to know what this is. Even though it is all around us. A constituent of the cell walls of almost all dry land plants, lignin is the second most abundant natural polymer in the world, surpassed only by cellulose. Now one company, the Helsinki based multinational UPM, is developing concepts for a biorefinery separating wood into cellulose and lignin including novel uses for these constituents. And few organisations can be better place to take advantage of this opportunity than the Biofore Company UPM. Employing 20,000 people across six continents, we today speak exclusively to Dr. Michael Duetsch, a Director and expert in this sector with 20+ years experience in the chemical and pulp & paper industry about how UPM Biochemicals are harnessing the immense potential of the two most abundant materials.
Derived from a merger of several Finnish paper companies in 1996, UPM ( @UPM_News ) leads the integration of bio and forest industries into a new, sustainable and innovation-driven future. Consisting of six business areas, UPM Biorefining, UPM Energy, UPM Raflatac, UPM Specialty Papers, UPM Paper ENA (Europe & North America) and UPM Plywood, UPM is producing and marketing products made of responsibly sourced, renewable raw materials. UPM develops new innovative and sustainable businesses. Biofuels, biocomposites and biochemicals are based on their extensive know-how and strong position in the forest biomass sourcing and processing value chain.
UPM is lifting the development of wood based products to the next level. Wood is one of the oldest materials used by human kinds. It started with energy usage and as material for construction and tools. In the last centuries, one revolutionary new application has been paper based on wood fibres.
The exceptional advantage of wood as a starting material is its well proven sustainability. UPM sources wood only from forests which are managed responsibly and the vast majority of them are certified under the most common sustainability schemes FSC and PEFC. Other outstanding characteristic of wood are since centuries established logistics and lower volatility in availability and price.
To establish new businesses, UPM modifies wood at an increasingly smaller scale. Lignin-free fibers for high performance composites, cellulose fibrils for pharmaceutical applications, and chemical constituents of wood as raw material for advanced fuels, chemical building blocks as well as lignin for various formulations.
UPM Biocomposites consists of UPM ProFi outdoor products for construction and UPM Formi granulates for injection moulding and extrusion. UPM ProFi and UPM Formi composites combine the best characteristics of natural fibres and plastic. Their principle ingredients are cellulose fibres and polymers, which are either virgin or recycled.
One scale smaller products – UPM Biofibrils – are based on micro- and nano-fibrillated cellulose and GrowDex a novel wood-based cellulose nanofibril hydrogel for 3D cell culturing and other biomedical applications. It is highly biocompatible with human cells and tissues – but without any animal- or humanderived material.
The story continues going from fiber and fibrils to the molecular level. UPM’s renewable diesel fuel, UPM BioVerno, is an exceptional innovation. It is produced from crude tall oil, a residue of UPM’s own pulp production. It works in all diesel engines – cars, buses, trucks or boats. UPM has invested EUR 179 million in the world’s first biorefinery producing wood-based renewable diesel.
The next innovation in UPM’s portfolio is lignin: “Lignin works from both an environmental and economic perspective” says Dr Duetsch. “Here at UPM we’ve developed both the know-how and the IP regarding the chemistry of lignin from various sources as well as lignin analysis, fractionation, purification, activation, modification, and formulation.”
The benefits of UPM’s lignin-based products are clear when speaking to Dr. Duetsch. They are 100 per cent bio-based, offer excellent performance, reduce our dependency on fossil raw materials with an increased security of supply, offer cost savings and versatility - lignin can be used in a broad range of applications, ranging from composites, through a broad range of resin systems, to raw material for carbon fibers and beyond. To give one product as an example, UPM’s BioPiva, based on their proprietary lignin-resin technology, allows resin producers to substitute up to 50% of their fossil-based raw materials with a non-toxic, 100% bio-based, and cost effective alternative, without compromising product performance.
Finally, UPM Biochemicals is developing biorefinery processes to produce chemical building blocks made from wood. These products provide true drop-in alternatives to petroleum based chemicals and are ready to be converted into various industrial products and everyday consumer goods. Improved carbon footprint and cost competitive pricing are just examples among the multiple benefits of UPM biobased building blocks.
The basis are biorefinery processes highly integrated into UPM’s Biofore platform which are currently under development. “There are a number of tactics to overcome the challenges we face.” Duetsch explained. “I think it’s important to be conscious of both your strengths and weaknesses. You’ll never have all the knowledge, you don’t have to invent everything. And in this collaboration and co-operation are key. We have built a strong network within the bio-economy and are always interested in speaking to new people and learning about fresh approaches – I’ve never heard anyone say no to have a conversation! And this is why I’ve titled my presentation at Bio-Based Live Europe - Managing Complexity – Challenges of Lignocellulose Based Biorefineries.”
To conclude Luke questioned Dr. Duetsch what the future plans for UPM are: “At the heart of our work is developing and testing applications, alongside our partners and create commercially viable industrial scale biorefineries. In the mid-term, we will prove the model on a commercial level and then move onto gaining economies of scale. On developing biorefinery technologies we are then able to integrate it into UPM’s mills. We’ve identified a number of new product areas, and although I can’t tell you what they are, we are all looking forward to further success stories an exciting decade ahead.”
This article first appeared in Issue #6 of Bio-Based World Quarterly.
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