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Future biorefineries

In three projects, researchers in FinnCERES are finding new ways to use the building blocks of wood as replacements for fossil raw materials.
FinnCERES
Photo by Fotoni Film & Communication

To replace fossil raw materials with sustainable renewable resources, we need to identify new solutions which fulfill the sustainability criteria. Such a goal can be achieved by boosting the valorization rate of raw materials. Researchers in FinnCERES, are finding new ways to convert the biopolymers, building blocks of wood, into both existing commodities and novel products, making sure we benefit from all of the potentials our precious forests have to offer.

Key Research Themes of FinnCERES

GVL: a green solvent for pulping wood

Wood pulping for the production of traditional cellulose-based products such as paper and cardboard has been around for more than a century. Further development of the pulping industry requires better resource efficiency, i.e. valorizing not only the cellulose fraction but also other wood components (hemicellulose, lignin, extractives). GVL biorefinery introduces a sustainable alternative to current sulfur-based pulping techniques, aiming at higher efficiency in converting biomass feedstocks to existing commodities and much more.

Comprising 40 - 50% of lignocellulosic biomass, cellulose is naturally the main biorefinery product. GVL pulping sustainably produce a cellulosic pulp with quality comparable to existing rayon-grade dissolving pulp, contributing to the gradual replacement of fossil-based polyester and cotton textiles.

Wood biorefinery concept based on γ-valerolactone/water fractionation

Make pulping great again with GVL biorefinery. | Photo and desgin by Nina Pulkkis and Huy Quang Lê
Make pulping great again with the GVL biorefinery method. | Photo and design by Nina Pulkkis and Huy Quang Lê
Zhoujun_Hemicellulose_Light1 microscopy copy.jpg
Photo by Zhuojun Meng

Advanced nanomaterials from hemicellulose

Around 15-25% of wood is made of hemicellulose. Currently, nearly all of it is burned in the pulp mill after harvesting. However, this sugar side stream can be used for a myriad of novel applications, from Xylitol sweeteners to biobarriers and even feedstock for the microbial production of bioplastics. Recently, FinnCERES researcher Zhuojun Meng discovered that in specific conditions hemicellulose formed nano-sized crystals, showing liquid crystal properties. Liquid crystals are used in LCD screens, for example. This finding could be useful in creating future bio-based electronics.

Bottom-up Construction of Xylan Nanocrystals in Dimethyl Sulfoxide

Closeup of wood grain surface coated in dark stain
Wooden surface applied with lignin. | Chair design: Saara Kantele. Photo by Fotoni Film & Communications

Resource-wise use of forest biomass: Case Lignin

Around 30% of wood is made out of lignin. Lignin is – in a way – the glue that binds cellulose and hemicellulose together making trees strong and rigid. Most of the lignin is burnt in the mill for energy, but the use of lignin in higher value applications is essential for a future bio-economy. In the GVL process, the lignin is sulfur-free, which opens many new avenues for higher value products.

 

Monika Österberg’s team at Aalto University has developed a nano lignin coating. This new coating has great potential to protect wood. It is more water repellent than many commercial coatings because it retains the natural structure of wood and its micro-scaled roughness. Since it is hydrophobic, the coating is also quite resistant to stains, while lignin’s inherent structure resists color changes from sunlight. It also does an excellent job of retaining wood’s breathability.

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The event is a part of Helsinki Design Week’s official festival programme and Year of Research-Based Knowledge. Aalto University is one of the EU's New European Bauhaus partners. 

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