Biochemicals can replace oil in plastic – new value from wood

28 March 2017

Both industry and consumers are keen to reduce the world’s dependency on fossil-based raw materials and move towards products that are manufactured from renewable materials with a minimal impact on the environment. The key drivers behind this trend are climate change mitigation and efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” says Jyrki Ovaska, Executive Vice President for Technology at UPM.

Jyrki Ovaska and Juuso Konttinen

The food industry and global corporations manufacturing products such as toys and furniture are looking into packaging made from bio-based materials instead of crude oil.

“Also megatrends such as resource scarcity, population growth, urbanization and higher living standards increase interest in biochemicals”, Jyrki Ovaska continues.

The European Chemical Industry Council (Cefic) estimates that the 2013 market value of the global chemical industry was EUR 3.2 trillion. By 2030, the figure is expected to rise to EUR 6.3 trillion. “As yet, however, bio-based chemicals still account for only a small proportion of this figure,” Ovaska points out.

Replacing oil in plastic

UPM Biochemicals is currently focusing on four product categories: chemical building blocks, lignin products, biofibrils and biomedical products. “Bio-based chemical building blocks can for example be used to replace oil-based chemicals in plastic production,” explains Juuso Konttinen, Vice President, UPM Biochemicals.

Wood-based lignin is meanwhile yielding ideas for a wide array of products designed for various end-uses. “It can for instance be used to manufacture bio-based resins to replace fossil-based resins in plywood production,” Konttinen says.

Biofibrils are cellulose-based micro- and nanofibril products that can be used for shaping and reinforcing different materials. Biofibrils can also be used in new biomedical applications. UPM has newly launched GrowDex®, a proprietary hydrogel for cell culturing in medical research and other applications.

R&D rollouts begin

UPM has been investing in biochemical research for several years now.

“R&D is a long-term initiative that requires perseverance. We are finally approaching the point when we can gradually start to commercialise our innovations in biochemicals,” reveals Ovaska.

UPM’s breakthroughs with biochemicals follow in the wake of the company’s success in biofuel development. After a long research phase and successful testing at a pilot facility, UPM has established a production plant for its biofuel innovation, UPM BioVerno.

“Commercial production requires sizeable investments. Before any decisions are made, we need to be sure that the technology works.”

Innovations require collaboration between universities, research institutions and the companies developing the new technologies and businesses.

“All the required expertise cannot come from within the company alone. Finding the right partners and networks is essential,” Konttinen says.

A good example of this type of broad-ranging collaboration is UPM’s ValChem project, which aims to demonstrate the viability of producing chemical building blocks and lignin from wood raw material. The international project pools expertise from the forestry, chemical and biotechnology industries. ValChem has received EUR 13.1 million in funding from the EU.

Read more:

Growdex delights biomedical researchers

The Biofore strategy speeds up finding solutions to global issues

A futurist’s view on global challenges and answering them

Photo: Janne Lehtinen

Matti Remes

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