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Finland looks for renewable solutions to replace fossil-based raw materials

The project’s harnessing of agricultural and forestry effluents, such as cellulose, taps into a forecast megatrend of material production using new, environmentally friendly technologies.


A Finnish conglomerate drawn from research and commerce is harnessing synthetic biology to produce basic chemicals used as precursors in the plastics industry in a project called SynbioPro.

The focus of the project is modelled on the ability of yeast cells and bacteria to function as biological factories. The project seeks to modify the microbes to enable them to alter agricultural and forestry effluents, such as cellulose, into acrylic acid, adipic acid and other basic chemicals.

Plastic materials produced from these acids can be found in scores of everyday products and have a global market value of nearly 20 billion euros annually.

“Microbial cell factories can be harnessed to produce our future materials,” said project head Merja Penttilä, research professor for biotechnology at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland. “The power of nature to synthesise and its rich chemistry gives us possibilities we have never seen before.”

Materials left over from agriculture and forestry constitute a large and so-far unutilised pool of raw materials. Image: Adobe

VTT and the University of Tampere are leading the research arm of the project. Finnish companies Neste, Fortum, Kemira, Mirka and Olfactomics are tasked with developing various industrial applications. Neste, for example, is developing sustainable and globally scalable raw material and technology solutions to produce transport fuels, along with chemicals and polymers.

“Materials left over from agriculture and forestry, such as straw and logging residue, constitute a large and so-far unutilised pool of raw materials,” said Neste’s Perttu Koskinen. “Synthetic biology is a promising and rapidly developing technology. With its help these raw materials can potentially be utilised in the future in the production of renewable chemicals, thereby reducing the use of crude oil and curbing climate change.”

SynbioPro is also one of the first members in the ExpandFibre ecosystem, a 50 million-euro R&D project spearheaded by Fortum and Metsä Group. This project focuses on refining cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin into products of high value, replacing fossil-based raw materials.


By: James O’Sullivan