September 11, 2020

FIVE FROM FINLAND: Bioeconomy solutions and innovations 

illustration o fman and woman watering the globe
Wondering whether Finland is well placed to become a global forerunner in the bio-based economy? Wonder no more.
Julia Bushueva

Thanks to its abundant renewable natural resources, outstanding expertise and industrial strengths, Finland has been steadily evolving into a major bioeconomy, with a lot being done in terms of both research and application of bio-based technology and innovation.

As outlined by the national bioeconomy strategy published in 2014, Finland has a goal of increasing the output of its bioeconomy to 100 billion euros by 2025 and creating 100 000 new jobs. Progress towards the goal, deemed “ambitious but realistic” by experts, is facilitated by Finland’s long-term commitment to the circular economy, broad use of clean technology and interest in innovative materials developed with a sustainable approach to nature. 

Recently, Finland hosted the World Bioeconomy Forum – virtually, due to the pandemic – that attracted delegates from over 30 countries and enjoyed significant global support from bioeconomy stakeholders. The full-day event, broadcast live from Finland’s Ruka, once again provided a great platform to exchange views on the ever more important circular bioeconomy and climate change, as well as to highlight Finnish knowhow. 

Below are some examples of why Finland is excellently placed to become a global forerunner in the bio-based economy.

1. Natural and human resources

Bioeconomy focuses on biological resources which are managed and used sustainably to produce energy, goods, food and services. In Finland, where forests populate over 75 per cent of the land mass, wood is the most significant renewable natural resource. It comes as no surprise then that the Finnish bioeconomy is largely wood-based. Biomasses originating in forests are now being used to create a wide range of things: from biofuels and bioenergy to bioplastics, and textile fibres to chemicals and medicines. 

A smooth and swift transition to the bioeconomy, however, requires not only natural but also human resources. Luckily, Finland is a hotbed for innovation talent with such key players in the field as VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, universities and environmentally conscious companies helping the country to hold a leading position internationally. 

Another crucial thing is active co-operation between research organisations in different countries, researchers and businesses, as well as industries, to make beneficial use of various industrial byproducts 

2. Biofuels and bioenergy

Finland is a seasoned expert in sustainable biofuels production. UPM Biofuels, for example, is particularly famous for BioVerno, a wood-based biofuel made by hydrotreating crude tall oil, a residue of pulp production. In 2017, the company was internationally recognised as the “Bioenergy Industry Leader” for its advanced biofuels and one-of-a-kind commercial scale biorefinery in Lappeenranta. 

Meanwhile, Neste has developed a unique technology to manufacture fuels from any organic biomass, such as vegetable oil and a variety of waste and residues. At present, Neste MY Renewable Diesel can be produced from over 10 renewable raw materials and is used to significantly cut emissions from transport across the globe, including in Germany, the Netherlands and the USA. 

Another exciting example of Finnish bioenergy expertise is Green Fuel Nordic, a biorefining company that relies on an innovative fast pyrolysis technology and renewable domestic forest biomass in the production of an advanced bio-oil. In 2018, the company received a 24 million-euro capital boost for the construction of its biomass plant in Lieksa. 

A more recent breakthrough in the field was made by VTT researchers, who developed a technique based on gasification which offers a sustainable way to turn biomass waste from forestry into heat, biofuels and chemicals 

3. Wood-based textiles

A few years ago, VTT, Aalto University, the University of Vaasa and the Tampere University of Technology (now merged into Tampere University) joined forces to prove that wood cellulose could become the material of the future and replace fossil-based raw materials in a plethora of industries and applications. 

Now, Finnish innovators are actively using cellulose as a raw material for textiles in an attempt to ease the environmental burden of the textile industry. Spinnova’s award-winning sustainable innovation produces textile-ready fibre from cellulose without any harmful chemicals. The solution was invented by Juha Salmela, who was chosen as Europe’s chief technology officer of 2018. 

Elsewhere, Aalto University and the University of Helsinki collaborated on the development of the Ioncell technology, which enables the conversion of wood cellulose into textile fibres without any toxic chemicals. The innovation took the national and international spotlight after the First Lady of Finland, Jenni Haukio, wore an evening gown made from birch-based Ioncell fibre to the Independence Day gala in 2018. 

The fashion industry, in its turn, is gradually recognising the importance of shifting towards more sustainable materials and less resource-intensive ways of manufacturing. Finnish fashion brand Cuitu is sourcing eco-friendly materials for its fashion items from innovative partners, including the above mentioned Spinnova and VTT. 

4. Bio-based alternatives to plastics

Finland is also home to a range of bioplastics made from renewable biomass sources and meant to replace plastics derived from fossil fuels that for decades have been causing a remarkable stress to the environment. 

VTT has developed a fully bio-based material with excellent formability and colouring properties which makes it suitable for many industrial applications, such as furniture. Espoo-based Paptic is offering a sustainable alternative to plastic materials in packaging. Its wood fibre-based material is being used to replace plastic films in bags and packages, recently earning recognition from industry professionals. 

Finnish food packaging solutions are also changing the world for the better, guided by the principles of the bioeconomy. A few years ago, food packing giant Huhtamäki introduced the first 100-per cent renewable paper cup made from plants. The Future Smart cups are made from paperboard that comes from PEFC-certified forests and use sugarcane-based coating to protect paperboard fibres against moisture. 

Another promising alternative to oil-based phenolic materials is Lineo by Stora Enso, made from the versatile wood-based raw material lignin and named “bio-based product of the year” at the Bio-Based World News Innovation Awards 2018.  

5. Wood-based medical innovations

Wood is the focus of Finnish medical innovation as well. Oulu-based Onbone has developed Woodcast, an ecological and completely non-toxic casting material made from clean wood chippings and biodegradable plastic. After being used for repairing fractures and treating sprains and strains, Woodcast can be disposed of as biowaste or energy waste. 

UPM, the University of Helsinki and the Helsinki University Hospital have designed an advanced wound care dressing made from responsibly sourced Finnish birch. The unique product is reported to accelerate the healing process, benefiting both patients and hospitals. 

Elsewhere, VTT and Aalto University have addressed the challenge of healthcare sector residues ending up in waters due to the inability of current water treatment plants to filter out hormones and other pharmaceutical substances. The solution is a wood-based filter for medical residues designed to be used in wastewater treatment plants and hospitals.  

Text: Zhanna Koiviola 

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