ForTheDoers Blog

Materials from biomass – the bioeconomy offers solutions for the global sustainability problem

Heli Antila 23 September 2020, 11:11 EEST

The drivers of today's bioeconomy are sustainability and a significantly higher degree of processing of not just wood, but a wide range of various biomasses. The bioeconomy has an important role in the journey towards carbon neutrality and reducing the need to use non-renewable resources.

Child's hand holding a straw

The production and consumption of renewable resources has a long tradition in Finland. Industrial use of wood marked the first steps of the bioeconomy some 500 years ago. Since then, the mechanical and chemical forest industry and the utilisation of wood raw material, e.g. for construction, consumer goods and heating, have been significant for the entire national economy.

Today the bioeconomy covers much more. Its drivers are sustainability and a significantly higher degree of processing of various biomasses – not just wood. The bioeconomy, together with the circular economy, has an important role in the journey towards carbon neutrality and reducing the need to use non-renewable resources.

What is biomass and what can be made from it?

Biomass – whether wood, straw, grass or flowers – consists of three main components: cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin. Cellulose gives biomass its strength: the strength is evident when trying to pull apart a blade of grass lengthwise; it takes a surprising amount of force to do it. Hemicellulose gives biomass its flexibility: trees bend in the wind, but it takes a stronger storm to snap them. Lignin is the glue that holds everything together. Each of these components has its own role in the journey towards carbon neutrality.

Even though cellulose has been used for decades to manufacture paper, cardboard and hygiene products, significant new application areas have been found, e.g. in textiles, composites and in the pharmaceutical industry. In addition, the traditional areas of application are being further developed. Typical to all this is the replacement of fossil raw materials with renewables.

Hemicellulose is a rather new application area in the food, cosmetics, plastics and chemical industries, for example. Hemicellulose can be used to replace either fossil raw materials or food chain raw materials in hundreds or even thousands of applications.

Lignin has long been considered the most difficult component to utilise, however, the first commercial applications are already on the market and new ones are under development. There may be areas of application in the construction industry, asphalt or even batteries, in which it is replacing fossil raw materials.

Bioeconomy – a systemic solution to global problems

At the moment, we squander tremendous amounts of biomasses. For example, in the Delhi region 50 million tonnes of paddy straw and other agricultural waste is burnt annually. Refining just this amount into textile fibre could replace over half of the global cotton production. The smoke emissions from the burning of agricultural waste every October-November has a health impact equivalent to a daily dose of smoking a couple packs of cigarettes.

Cotton, in turn, is produced in a very unsustainable way, as it requires huge amounts of water and pesticides. Additionally, the production of oil-based textile fibres is on the rise, both in absolute and relative terms, and already today covers about two-thirds of all the textile fibres.

All biomass components must be used as resource efficiently as possible. Fortum Bio2X focuses primarily on grass-based raw materials, such as straw.

Finland – a global trendsetter for a sustainable textile industry

Metsä Group and Fortum have established collaboration programmes, called ExpandFibre, to develop the bioeconomy to the level it deserves in partnership with many other companies and research institutes. The primary raw materials are forest and straw biomasses. The programmes cover all fractions and the approach they follow in replacing nonrenewable, fossil and other unsustainable or food production raw materials is similar to eating an elephant: we can make the world more sustainable one bite at a time.

The common thread in ExpandFibre is the textile value chain. The sector’s global sustainability challenges are known, and Finnish players have concrete solutions for them. There are multiple sustainable textile technologies and projects under development in Finland to broaden the raw material base from wood to agribiomass and recycled fibre.

There is plenty of potential in the textile industry to disrupt the textile value chain, but, as usual, change isn’t likely to come from within the industry. In the ExpandFibre programmes, Metsä Group and Fortum are humbly building the future and inviting all companies, research facilities, universities and other actors to join forces to make the world more sustainable. Read more about the project on ExpandFibre’s website.

The text has been adapted from the original blog published on Business Finland’s website in Finnish on 13.7.2020

Heli Antila

VP, Biobased Solutions
Fortum Bio2X
Tel: +358 40 571 7188
heli [dot] antila [at] fortum [dot] com

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