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The bio-based path to a fossil fuel-free society

In less than a generation, humanity will take the leap from using energy that for millions of years has been stored in coal, oil and other fossil fuels to living as part of the cycle. If climate goals are to be achieved, we must be able to live off the energy from the natural world around us. But that is not enough: materials and chemicals that are currently derived from fossil fuels must be developed in new ways. For this, bio-based alternatives are a part of the solution. RISE is testing new materials and components that may soon become part of all of our everyday lives, while making established solutions smarter.

– “It’s not necessarily about chopping down more forest,” says Johanna Mossberg, Head of the Biorefinery and Energy division at RISE.

– “Instead, it involves figuring out what we can do with residues that are not used today, such as when we cut down a tree: we use the best timber to build a house and we use other parts in the pulp industry. What can we do with the bark, sawdust, lignin, branches and so on? And what if we could even make use of the bio-based carbon dioxide?”

Researchers at RISE and in industry are currently trying to find new areas of use for these residual streams from production mentioned by Mossberg. Some can be used to make bioplastics, biochemicals or biofuels, others could become bio-based graphite to meet the growing need for large batteries. Bio-based carbon fibre from lignin may one day be used in wind turbines, vehicles or sports equipment. Residues from forestry can also be used as raw material for food protein, which could be used as fish feed to replace animal protein, for example.

“We know how to experiment, test, and develop”

There are plenty of ideas in both industry and research, the only question is who will truly revolutionise the way we live and produce things today. It is at this stage, when an idea is tested against reality, that RISE has opportunities that many SMEs do not have themselves.

RISE has access to equipment and research infrastructure, and can often assist in building development consortiums with others and in seeking public funding. For example, with the help of RISE, an SME company was able to test its ideas for recycling materials in rubber tyres, and a start-up company was able to construct pilot equipment for a new process that divides biomaterials using ionic liquids, which can then be used for paper, textiles, biocomposites and nanocellulose.

–  “Since we already have testbeds, we also have operators and practical assets such as electricity, steam and environmental permits, which means that companies can easily build their pilot equipment alongside our existing structures,” explains Mossberg. “If you want to test and try out an idea but don’t have the infrastructure yourself, you can use ours. And if it’s something we don’t have, we frequently find solutions together with the companies, such as a company establishing their pilot in our facilities.”

Everything that can be made from fossil materials can theoretically be bio-based

Part of a knowledge infrastructure

RISE does not only assist industry and society with research infrastructure in the form of test and demonstration facilities to test new processes and products. Assistance is also provided for applied research and development, where the project structure is governed by the type of customer and the question the customer needs help with. This can involve everything from seeking joint publicly funded projects together with SMEs to developing and commercialising patented processes or products in partnership with large international companies.

Based on its comprehensive technical knowledge, RISE can also provide scientifically substantiated documentation to various decision-makers. For example, regions that want support in their smart specialisation strategies or in the implementation of their regional climate roadmaps, or government investigative committees that require specific background reports. RISE also has a particular mission to support trade and industry in the implementation of fossil fuel-free roadmaps.

Old solutions become new

Not everything that RISE works with in the field of bio-based solutions is new, cutting-edge technology. A large part of the work involves making established solutions and systems more resource and energy efficient.

For instance, RISE works with sustainability and life cycle analyses and, based on them, RISE can then assist in the actual development of production processes. One example is the full-length paper machine in Stockholm where more efficient processes and system solutions for dewatering are being developed and tested in the papermaking process. Another example is Käppalaverket on Lidingö, where RISE tests and develops the sludge digestion process to determine how greater volumes of sewage sludge can be digested into biogas, without needing to expand the digestion capacity.

– “Biomass is a finite resource,” says Mossberg. “That is precisely why we must constantly find ways to make our use more efficient and ensure that all parts can be utilised, including those previously considered unusable residues or side streams. With new conversion techniques, these by-products and residual streams can replace fossil fuel-derived materials, chemicals and energy, which means that the material we extract from the forest can be used much more resource-efficiently than today. In short: everything that can be made from fossil materials can theoretically be bio-based – but the way we do this more intelligently is something that we develop and test with our partners!”

Published: 2021-07-09
Johanna Mossberg

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Johanna Mossberg

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