Bioeconomy Chemicals

Lignocellulose will be the crude oil replacement

We need to utilise all fractions from the valuable raw material for different value products and minimise waste production.

 

Oil-based products have triumphed the 20th century, but the 21st century has started with a growing interest towards renewable, bio-based alternatives to crude oil. One of them is forest-based biomass lignocellulose.

“You can create almost all the same chemicals and similar materials from lignocellulose as you can make from crude oil. It is the same carbon in a different form and needs different methods of processing”, says Research Professor Kristiina Kruus from VTT.

Forest biomass is the most important source of lignocellulose in Finland: it contains cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin. From these three main components, the most widely known and utilised is cellulose, mainly used for paperboard and paper.  Hemicellulose is used in the paper industry to some extent, and it is being used with cellulose to create technical sugars and further converted into biofuels and other chemicals.

“With all fractions, we should move up on the value ladder, but especially the different forms of side and waste streams need more attention in the future. On the bottom of the pyramid, we use lignocellulose for bioenergy.  Paper and packaging are added-value applications. Moving up, next are materials like composites and textiles. On the top we have fine chemicals, cosmetics, food and feed ingredients”, Kruus describes the value creation.

Most of the lignin is currently being burnt in pulp mills and used as an energy source. It is the low-value use of raw material, and we should develop added-value applications. Burning also creates CO2 emissions and accelerates climate change.

Lignin has huge market potential

“One of the already existing applications is to use lignin as a component for adhesives used in wood products and furniture, replacing toxic, synthetic phenol. Lignin also has huge market potential as a surface active agent, for example in concrete, paints, inks and coatings”, says Tiina Liitiä, Research Team Leader from VTT.

VTT’s LigniOx technology enables conversion of lignin side-streams into sustainable and cost-efficient concrete plasticisers, which can compete in performance even with current commercial fossil-based products. Concrete is the most used construction material, and good workability of fresh concrete must be ensured without compromising the strength of matured concrete. The LigniOx plasticisers enable the use of a small amount of water, producing a highly workable concrete that hardens into a strong final product.

Cat-lignin is another promising VTT technology that produces highly reactive lignin for phenolic resins, making wood adhesives more cost-effective and environmentally friendly than the current synthetic products. These lignin technologies offer ideal solutions for the carbon-neutral world already in the near future. On the longer term, lignin can be a part of numerous higher value end uses, even in applications such as food or electronics.

VTT has world-class expertise in lignin chemistry and product development with tools like chemical modification, structural analysis, catalytic and thermochemical conversion. All this will benefit modern biorefineries, creating higher value from their side streams.

With nanocellulose is possible to replace fossil-based raw materials

Another promising product is nanocellulose,  a processed material having defined nano-scale dimensions. Nanocellulose can be produced either with mechanical, chemical or enzymatic treatments, or their combinations. They all create different types of nanocellulose, suitable for specific applications.

“The inherent properties of nanocellulose can be utilized in numerous novel and promising applications, which are growing in importance, such as in electronics, energy materials and membranes for purification of air and water. A hot topic globally is the replacement of plastics in packaging materials. Nanocellulose could be of help as it has a tendency for film formation and excellent oxygen and oil barrier properties. With nanocellulose, it is thus possible to replace fossil-based raw materials as well as create novel high added-value, functional products and applications”, says Heli Kangas, Research Team Leader at VTT.

Promising applications for nanocellulose have been developed in coatings, increasing fibre-fibre bond strength in paper and paperboard manufacture, aerogels, foams, films and medical applications. Nanocellulose has many unique properties, which can revolutionise the material science. This includes renewable nature, excellent mechanical properties, tailorable surface chemistry, outstanding biocompatibility and optical properties.

Finland has a great opportunity of becoming a world leader in biomaterials.

VTT has been active in nanocellulose research and development since 2008. The focus of research has been both in development of production processes for different grades of nanocellulose and also in the development of applications. VTT  has convincingly utilized nanocellulose in the application areas such as papermaking, packaging, water purification, printed electronics, biocomposites and smart textiles.

It has been demonstrated that several desired end-product properties including emulsion and foam stability as well as fluid rheology can be gained using nanocellulose. One of the main aims has been in understanding the relations between raw materials and production techniques used to properties of nanocellulose manufactured. VTT has several unique pilot scale research environments for manufacturing, development and testing of novel nanocellulose materials and products. During the ten years of research, VTT has processed more than 90 different raw materials, has had over 50 different partners and customers and has produced and analysed over 2500 CNF samples.

“We should develop products and processes that are sustainable. We need to utilise all fractions from the valuable raw material for different value products and minimise waste production. Finland has a great opportunity of becoming a world leader in biomaterials. At VTT, our core competence is to combine materials and methods from research into large-scale production for the benefit of companies. It is what makes us tick”, says Kruus.

Further information:

Kristiina Kruus, Research Professor, kristiina.kruus@vtt.fi, +358505202471, Tiina Liitiä, Research Team Leader, tiina.liitia@vtt.fi, +358407552387, Heli Kangas, Research Team Leader, heli.kangas@vtt.fi, +358400357233

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