Replace, Upgrade, Circulate and Collaborate- the Nordic style

Nordic countries  joined forces under a formal policy and strategy forum called the Bioeconomy Panel. The panel’s main job is to draw up proposals for a Nordic strategy for the bioeconomy, outlining options and practical measures to promote sustainable bioeconomies in the Nordic region. In preparation for the upcoming strategy,   the panel produced a catalogue containing a selection of innovative bioeconomy cases from the Nordic countries, Greenland and the Faroe Islands. The catalogue also presents some very interesting cases from the Nordic forest-based bioeconomy.

Replace, Upgrade, Circulate and Collaborate“, these are the four “strongholds” identified by the Nordic Bioeconomy Panel in its quest for creating a joint strategy for bioeconomy in the Nordic region. As we’re eagerly expecting this strategy, the Nordic Bioeconomy Panel published a catalogue highlighting  25 cases of such” Nordic strongholds”. These bioeconomy cases are assessed from different economical, environmental and societal perspectives.These 25 cases are meant to represent examples of a broad range of sectors in the Nordic economies stemming from land and sea bio-resources.

This catalogue already gives us a first hint of what to expect from the upcoming joint Nordic strategy. Clearly it builds on the strong assets, and broad variety of natural resources in the Nordic countries.  As one might expect, the forest sector is highlighted as an important provider of different solutions when it comes to replacement of fossil-based materials. Some cases exemplify the use of wood materials in construction, production of advanced biofuels from wood-based residues, and the use of cellulose from wood as a replacement for petroleum-based additives. Some of these cases are truly innovative:

One example is the GrowDex® wood nanocellulose hydrogel product developed by UPM-Kymmene Corporation in Finland. Basically UPM is now producing wood-based pharmaceuticals, or biocompatible materials that are compatible with human cells and that are suitable for various cell culture purposes! These properties enable a wide use in biomedical and pharmaceutical research and drug development applications. Apparently, this wood-based hydrogel can facilitate the growth of cells in a 3D environment, which mimics more closely natural tissues and organs compared to cells grown in 2D. More importantly, it can be used to replace animal testing and enable the development of cell-based drugs, tests, and models that can be used in the future for treating serious diseases. Talk about getting back to the roots and connecting to nature!

Hydrogel

Close communion with trees. Creating materials that are biocompatible  with human cells from wood ( Image Source)

A second interesting example from the forest-based sector comes again from UPM in Finland , this time from the company’s Biofuels division. UPM Biofuels has developed a process to transform wood-based residues from pulp production into an advanced biofuel that can apparently  be used in any diesel engine.The product is called UPM BioVerno and is produced through a hydrotreating process. Such biorefining processes have been developed in other countries as well, for example in Leuna or Bioliq in Germany.  Also in Sweden, SP Processum has evolved into a cluster that hosts the development, upscaling, and commercialisation of biorefinery processes.The cluster  also pursues forest biorefinery developments, with the approach that anything made out of oil can be also be made of wood.However, to this date, the challenge has always been to move past the experimental phase and move into industrial production. UPM Biofuels seems to have passed this threshold and established the first commercial-scale wood-based biorefinery in the world. It started production in January 2015 and is located in Lappeenranta, Finland. Whether it will be able to compete with cheaper fossil fuels and biofuels from other materials (e.g., agricultural and waste products) remains to be seen.

A similar example, is  the LignoJet project. LignoJet is a Swedish-Brazilian collaboration based on the use of lignin as the raw material for bio-based jet fuel. The valorization of lignin has been a highly sought-after technological development. Many pulp and paper industries still consider it as a byproduct and simply burn it. The Brazilian pulp producer Fibira aims to change this. Until now, technological development in area has been fairly slow, and many biorefinery concepts have failed to provide value-added solutions for this byproduct. If the LignoJet project succeeds to push through, it’s likely to become very profitable given the increasing demand from the aerospace industry for cheaper, more carbon-neutral jet fuels. Also, finding enough lignin won’t be a problem, given the abundance of lignin from pulp and paper processes. The world’s first permanent station for bio-based jet fuel is already available at Karlstad Airport in Sweden.

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The Lappeenranta biorefinery in Finland. Will we soon drive cars that run on wood-based fuels? (Image Source)

A last relevant example for the forest-based sector comes from Norway (surprise!). Trefokus, a networking company from Oslo, connects a wide range of stakeholders in the building sector and actively promotes the use of wood in construction. This organisation brings together  local communities, municipal planning processes, and public procurement. It also interacts with building projects, and is involved in education, and development of competencies all in the name of promoting wood construction. They already have several successful projects to show for, like the  Nardo School in Trondheim, one of Norway’s poster-child for sustainability as it is built from solid wood and is completely energy efficient since it uses geothermal energy.

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The Nardo School in Trondheim: a poster child for Norway’s sustainable construction sector (Image Source)

All in all, these are all interesting examples that spark our imagination about how a future forest-based bioeconomy could look like. Naturally, this Nordic catalogue doesn’t focus only on forests. Denmark, Iceland or Faroe Islands don’t have wast areas of forest-covered lands like Finland and Sweden, but they are surrounded by water, a lot of it. Here, opportunities might come from  the ocean and the Baltic sea, in the form  of cultivated seaweed, which can be used as an ingredient in fish feed, replacing e.g. colorants. After all, the bioeconomy is not about one resource in particular, it’s about multiple sectors working together, a mantra repeatedly highlighted in this document. If there’s  anything the Nordics are good at, it’s cooperation.  Thus, we can definitively expect the Nordic Bioeconomy Strategy to provide an interesting and visionary read.  It’s expected to come out at the end of 2017.

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