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Professor Adriaan van Heiningen admires Finnish perseverance

FiDiPro van Heiningen research focuses on innovative forest products biorefinery.

It has already turned dark in rainy Otaniemi, but luckily, in his eight years of working there, Professor Adriaan van Heiningen has also witnessed the summery lights of Finland and the beauty of the campus.

The day has been busy for the professor, as he has attended the doctoral defence of his fourth PhD student, the last one to be supervised by him alone. Guided by insightful and at times challenging questions, the event had been going well until its surprise termination.

'The defence went well, even though the fire alarm ended it slightly prematurely,' Adriaan van Heiningen laughs.

'I have had the pleasure of teaching great students: Evangelos Sklavounos, Minna Yamamoto, Mikhail Iakovlev and Hanna Hörhammer. In the spring, there is still the doctoral defence of Vahid Jafari, whose work I have supervised together with Herbert Sixta.'

The acknowledgements written by the doctoral students convey an image of a professor who, despite the many demands on his time, has been there to help and really contribute with his efforts to their supervision. In addition to the doctoral dissertations, Professor van Heiningen has supervised two master's theses. Cooperation with the Department of Forest Products Technology will continue as Professor Emeritus.

New kinds of biorefineries

Originally from Holland, Professor Adriaan van Heiningen was one of the first professors to arrive in Finland as part of the FiDiPro programme in 2007.

'I had thought of taking one year sabbatical leave and was determined to come to Finland for that. I knew Professor Tapani Vuorinen and Herbert Sixta, who was not yet in Finland at the time, and we decided to apply for FiDiPro funding for a new field of research called forest biorefineries.'

Research targets of the FiDiPro Project 'Innovative Forest Products Biorefinery' focused on the conversion of existing kraft pulp mills into integrated forest products biorefineries that produce, in addition to tailored cellulose pulps and energy, liquid transportation fuels, commodity chemicals and green monomers for  polymer production. The new products would raise the profitability of pulp mills. The tailoring of cellulose pulps will also make it possible to produce new and improved paper, board and specialty cellulose products, which will increase the competitiveness of the forest products industry in Nordic countries.

'For example the research was performed on softwoods such as spruce and  larch, and focussed on producing butanol and lactic acid respectively. The projects have been quite successful, since some of the  innovations developed in the dissertations focussed on butanol production are already being adopted by a company.  The biorefinery concept based on the use of larch developed by Hanna Hörhammer in her dissertation has received interest from a Russian company who is considering it for a new mill to exploit the vast Siberian Larch forests.'

When the FiDiPro term began in 2007, Aalto University had not yet begun operations. What new things would you say Aalto has brought with it?

'The activities of HUT were already international, but with the transformation to Aalto the internationalisation has become even more prominent. Funding models have also changed,' Professor van Heiningen states.

'The competition for funding is constantly intensifying, while some of the major engineering funding source is not directly available anymore, which understandably causes great concern among researchers.' Another major change is that Biorefineries is now a new specialisation in our Department at Aalto.

Professor van Heiningen has accumulated an exceptionally broad, internationally acknowledged expertise in the areas of chemical engineering, pulp and paper technology and energy production. How did he end up studying wood?

'I would have preferred to do my dissertation on a topic that was more focused on chemical reaction engineering, but there was no funding available for that, whereas the situation in paper technology was different. So it was all determined by chance,' he laughs. In addition, after his PhD he was asked to start up a course master's programme in the pulp and paper production at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, which in a way forced him to study the field more in order to be able to teach it.

Does wood have a future?

Professor Adriaan van Heiningen is positive about the future of the sector. According to him, forestry companies operating in Finland have begun to look for new products based on different types of side streams produced by the forest industry. Biodiesel and wood composites also constitute examples of new products created by the forest industry.

'These products did not exist when I was starting out in the field. Many important steps have been taken. The range of products today goes far beyond just paper. The central idea is how to come up with substitutes for oil-based products.

'When they want to develop something, Finns will not give up and make sure that it gets done. I have real respect for Finlands culture in terms of perseverance and respect for all' the cheerful professor concludes before leaving to prepare for a post-doctoral party.

 Picture taken at the defence of Hanna Hörhammer's dissertation.

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