Posted by: Heli Antila
Concern about climate change and sufficiency of resources are megatrends guiding Fortum’s strategy. We aim to respond to the challenges they bring also through our research and development work.
A growing area of research and development for us in recent years has been the more resource-efficient use of biomass. The concept can be compared to the circular economy and the utilisation of waste. Just like with waste, all the usable fractions should be separated from the biomass and put to use. Only then should the remaining material be combusted for energy.
Our research and development programme focusing on the efficient use of biomass is called Bio2X. Our basic idea is that biomass can be used to produce raw materials to replace fossil or less sustainable raw materials. We are pursuing solutions that significantly increase the value of biomass, reduce the manufacturing industry’s water consumption and environmental impacts, and bring new business opportunities to farmers in the poorest countries.
Towards new applications and value chains
We have been researching technologies related to biomass refining in collaboration with other players for years. During this time, the application areas have shifted from energy to also other industrial sectors – and even to consumer products.
We have been called an “oil company”, because the first commercialised product was bio-oil made from forest residues, chips or sawdust using pyrolysis technology. Produced in Joensuu, Fortum Otso bio-oil is a suitable replacement for heavy oil, and it reduces CO2 emissions by nearly 90 per cent compared to fossil fuels. The development work in this area will continue, as Fortum and Valmet are developing technology that makes it possible to produce high-value liquid biofuels from lignocellulose. Our collaboration partner is the Swedish fuel company Preem.
Biomass fractionation opens new opportunities
Lately we have focused particularly on biomass fractionation technologies and downstream processing. In fractionation, the biomass is divided into its three basic components: lignin, cellulose and hemicellulose. When fractionation is done immediately at the start of the process, the end products are much purer than in traditional cellulose and biofuel processes. These purer end products can be used in the production of a variety of products and to replace fossil or otherwise unsustainable raw materials in many industrial sectors, such as textiles or the plastic industry.
Many biomass sources, including many types of wood, straw, and grasses, can be used in fractionation. The availability of the raw materials and the use of new technology, in turn, enable smaller biorefineries and decentralised production. The selected raw material, the fractionation technology and the downstream processing play a role in determining the most feasible end product.
Will biowende follow energiewende?
Especially in developing countries, agrobiomass, like straw, is burned. The large-scale burning of straw in fields creates greenhouse gas emissions and local emissions. For example, the worst outdoor air in Delhi is so polluted that spending a day outside is equivalent to smoking 44 cigarettes. In three states in the Delhi region, 50 million tonnes of agrobiomass is burned every year. If it were processed into textile fibres, the amount would correspond to over half of the world’s cotton production. Huge potential!
In fact, the Bio2X research area is tackling such big questions that I’ve compared it in my presentations to an energy transition, i.e. “energiewende”, in which wind and solar power will disrupt the entire energy system. Time will tell if we’ll see a “biotransition”, where the resource-efficient use of biomass replaces industry that is based on fossil and other unsustainable raw materials.
Heli Antila is Fortum’s CTO