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Important breakthrough in fossil-free fuels

In the near future, we may be refuelling with green biofuel sourced from Swedish forests. Strategic innovation project BioLi2.0 – from lignin to bio-based fuels and chemicals has succeeded in refining lignin from forestry waste streams to produce fuel. This innovation has the potential to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and perform miracles for the climate.

Today, emissions from private and goods vehicles are one of the great villains of global climate change. The Swedish transport sector is responsible for approximately 30% of the country’s total emissions of greenhouse gases. If we are to achieve the national target of reducing carbon dioxide emissions from Sweden’s vehicle fleet by 70% by 2030, then even greater efforts are required to rid the nation of its dependence on fossil, petroleum-based products.

The ongoing BioLi2.0 project, managed through the BioInnovation programme, has demonstrated the feasibility of producing fuel from forestry raw materials.

“We have succeeded in turning lignin, one of the main components of wood and currently primarily extracted in paper pulp manufacturing, into an oleaginous substance that can be used as a fuel for both biodiesel and biopetrol,” explains Marie Anheden, former project manager of BioLi2.0 at RISE Research Institutes of Sweden. The project’s new manager, Katarina Ohlsson, takes up the story by answering the next question:

Why are forest fuels so important?

“If we are to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, we must switch from fossil-based to bio-based raw materials. Our research shows that it is possible to produce a green fuel from forestry materials that can reduce our climate impact.”

Lignin is the second most common component of wood cellulose and is a key structural element of the material. Lignin is a waste product of the pulp and paper industry and has thus far been used for energy and heat; however, as research has progressed, this waste product has been cast in an entirely different light. Rather than being a low-value product, lignin is becoming a high-value product that can be used for fuels, chemicals and other materials.

“The next step is for pulp mills to identify possibilities that make it financially viable to use the extracted lignin in other products, instead of using it for generating energy internally,” says Katarina Ohlsson.

One of the key factors in the project’s success is the collaboration between the private sector, research institutes and academia. Fuel manufacturer Preem has played a major role in the project. Åsa Håkansson, project manager at Preem, is delighted by the results obtained so far. Among other things, she sings the praises of the expertise available at RISE Research Institutes of Sweden.

“We have been granted access to a large number of experts in a range of fields that we here at Preem would never have been able to employ on a full-time basis. Not only that but these researchers have consistently come up with new ideas and methods that have encouraged us to work as a team, rather than as research institute and client. This has really proved to be a winning concept!”

When will we be able to refuel with lignin?

“It may be possible within a couple of years, but first we need to produce lignin in liquid form, something that specialist tech company SunCarbon is currently looking at. Then, we need to rebuild and upgrade our refineries if we are to develop lignin molecules into fuels. In terms of price, it is unlikely that we will ever be able to compete with fossil fuels and it is therefore vital that politicians take a long-term view, offering the necessary incentives to turn us into a fossil-free nation.”

One example of a practical application for these research results is the investment in Sweden’s first slurry hydrocracker in Piteå. This high-tech pilot facility is financed by a consortium including RISE, Chalmers, the Swedish Energy Agency and Preem and will make it possible to scale up the conversion of lignin to liquid fuels. This demonstrates that the market has a commercial interest in green biofuels from forestry products. As well as the positive climate effects, this will also reduce Sweden’s dependence on imported biofuels.

“We want to utilise our large forestry assets to manufacture here in Sweden, thereby supporting our domestic industry and creating jobs,” says Marie Anheden.

 

Text: Emily Mankert


Lignin

Lignin is the second most common component of plant cellulose, acting as a skeleton. Its primary use is in generating energy and heat in pulp and paper mills. Researchers have now succeeded in producing biofuel from lignin and can see opportunities for utilising lignin in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, or to enable fossile-free aviation.

BioLi2.0 – from lignin to bio-based fuels and chemicals

The research project is a two and a half year collaboration between the private sector, research institutes and academia aimed at developing processes for the production of fuels and chemicals based on renewable lignin resources as a replacement for fossil, petroleum-based products. The project has been divided into five subprojects covering value chains from raw materials to products via chemical transformation and refinement. The subprojects include refining lignin to vanillin, a synthetic vanilla substitute for the food industry, investigating the ability of various refinery techniques to break down lignin oils into fuel components, in-depth studies of the need for new analytical methods for lignin, and the production of odourless lignin. The project’s budget is SEK 36 million. Katarina Ohlsson is the project manager.