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Getting more value from our bio-based raw materials

Bio-based raw materials have tremendous potential in replacing fossil-based products. The problem is that with just one planet, the collected bio-based raw materials are not enough. Johanna Mossberg, head of the biorefinery and energy unit at RISE, explains how smarter, more efficient use can give us completely new opportunities.

“Trees are felled, can be cut into planks and the planks used in building a house, or the wood can be cooked to produce pulp and become paper, packaging materials and hygiene products. Well-used bio-based raw materials, but along the way several other possible raw materials have come about – such as sawdust, pieces of bark and small branches. At present, this kind of waste is at best used for energy production, in other words, it is burned up. But if we are to achieve the goal of a fossil-free society by 2045, we need to work smarter than this,” Johanna Mossberg explains.

“Bio-based raw materials are different forms of biomass from soil, forests and bodies of water. There is a lot of this, not least in Sweden, but it is still a limited asset. It is therefore of major interest from a research point of view to investigate how we can use this raw material smarter.”

To produce, for example, heat and electricity, other renewable energy sources can be used, such as solar and wind power.

“But when you need the actual carbon molecule in the material, for example, to produce plastics or textiles or other fibres, then it's the biomass itself and its green carbon atoms you need. And if it is to suffice, we must work more circularly and more efficiently than we do today.”

Both primary raw materials and residual streams

This is partly about using the actual primary raw materials more efficiently. Maybe one tree can be enough for more planks if you saw, cross-glue and plan in other ways. Perhaps even lower quality trees and with some damage can be used in pulp production if you develop the cooking process. But it is also about starting to take advantage of the residual streams that arise during production and that are not presently utilised, including bio-based carbon dioxide.

“For example, if you produce paper pulp or biofuel, there is often some stream of fairly concentrated carbon dioxide. Since it is bio-based, it has previously only been released, but if you want higher resource efficiency, you can take advantage of this stream. As an example, the agricultural cooperative Lantmännen separates the stream that arises when they make ethanol and use it for carbon dioxide used in, for example, the food industry.”

And that's just one example – the possibilities for new products or combinations from bio-based residual streams are almost endless. But there are thresholds to be passed along the way.

“On the one hand, bio-based raw materials are expensive to process compared to fossil fuels, and on the other hand, product and process development is costly, which creates a threshold. At the same time, there is an interest from industries, partly classic bio-industries such as pulp/paper and food, but also, for example, the chemical industry and the refinery industry, who now see bio-based raw materials as a much greater opportunity than before.”

För att kunna använda biobaserade produkter krävs processutveckling, ny teknik och nya lösningar, och där kan vi hjälpa till att testa och skala upp

Long-term funding needed

What Johanna Mossberg believes is needed now is government funding, and that this funding is for the long term.

“It takes so little fluctuation for politicians to back down and allocate funding to already existing systems instead of steering towards the new and the transition we need. We see this not least in the present political landscape. But if we are serious about the sustainable transition, we have to use the bio-based raw materials in a resource-efficient manner, and we must have the requisite fortitude to maintain initiatives for a longer term than just four years at a time.”

Through the “Valley of Death”

RISE is working to support the transition to more bio-based industry.

“Our major benefit is that we can contribute with our test beds, along with broad expertise in the field. Putting bio-oil into a refinery is not the same as with petroleum, they don't behave the same. In order to use bio-based products, process development, new technology and new solutions are required, and here we can help with testing and scaling up.

In this way, even small and medium-sized enterprises that cannot afford their own testing facilities can verify their products and thus find development potential.”

“With our knowledge and infrastructure, we can help them bridge the Valley of Death. No company should get stuck because they can't afford or don’t have the skills to test. And I am convinced that the companies that dare to take the lead and be first will have a very big competitive advantage.”

Published: 2022-06-28
Johanna Mossberg

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