Resource-efficient use of biomass can change the world

Heli AntilaPosted by: Heli Antila
18.4.2018

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

Biomass – a burning issue in 2016

Kari KankaanpääPosted by Kari Kankaanpää 3.6.2016

Year after year biomass remains a highly debated topic and continues to invoke feelings – both for and against. Why is biomass such a controversial issue and why is it topical right now?

The European Commission is preparing a sustainable bioenergy policy for the period after 2020. The first stage of the process, a public consultation, was closed on May 10th. It sparked interest, indeed: the Commission received almost 1,000 responses. The Commission’s proposal is due later this year. Parallel to this, many member states are discussing the future of their subsidy schemes for renewable energy, including biomass.

These two issues are a major challenge for the future use of biomass. This moment must be seized – this is the right timing for debate.

Biomass responds both to global and local challenges

In the aftermath of Paris COP21, the role of biomass is even more important. It is a crucial part of a sustainable energy system and a major asset for energy transition: renewable, carbon-neutral, mainly local and domestic – the only renewable energy form replacing fossil fuels in the production of electricity, heat, cooling, and traffic fuels.

Biomass is responding to several challenges: global climate change, resource efficiency and security of supply. Bioenergy production generates local economic benefits, improves employment and creates wellbeing for the rural economy.

Win-win – no conflict between various uses of biomass

Due to its versatility, biomass is a desired raw material for many purposes. A well-functioning biomass market and a level playing field for competition between the various uses of biomass has to be enabled. In the Nordic countries, we have plenty of raw material for all purposes, as does the whole EU. There is potential to increase the harvesting rate (currently 60-70% of annual forest growth in the EU) and, consequently, the amount of residues available for bioenergy production.

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We all should stand on the same side and see an increasing use of biomass as a win-win situation both for the energy industry and other industries. There is no contradiction between the energy and industrial uses of biomass, as most solutions benefit both of them. Markets and economic operators – not politicians – should decide on how biomass is used for various purposes.

No cascading use – resource efficiency is the key

Recently, the principle of cascading biomass use has entered into the debate. The principle implies that the same biomass should be used more than once, starting with material use and energy conversion would typically be the last step in the hierarchy. However, in many markets energy conversion may be the only economically viable or available option for the use of biomass resources. Therefore, a rigidly implemented cascading principle is not appropriate.

Instead, resource efficiency has to be a key criterion steering the use of biomass between the different end uses. In energy production, biomass is most efficiently utilised in advanced CHP plants in connection with district heat production or in other CHP-integrated processes. In these cases, by-products and residues are combusted with an overall efficiency of up to 90%. Total efficiency can be further increased in advanced solutions where e.g. biofuel or bio liquid production is integrated into a CHP plant. Much more efficient than combusting high-quality round wood in condensing power plants, which have efficiency rates seldom reaching 40%.

Sustainability criteria to target the origin of biomass

Uncertainty over the sustainable use of biomass is increasing. Carbon debt and biodiversity are among the most debated issues. Regarding solid and gaseous biomass, the current situation, consisting of different national legislations and private initiatives, is creating uncertainty and sometimes makes trade more complicated. EU-wide harmonised and binding sustainability criteria for all biomass and targeting the origin of biomass, regardless of its end use, is needed. These criteria should enable increased use of biomass while minimising administrative burdens or related costs. The criteria should not unnecessarily reduce the competitiveness of biomass: in many cases, biomass competes with fossil fuels, which generally have no requirements to demonstrate sustainability.

I’m fully convinced that the Nordic way of managing and using our forests is sustainable. We have to convince the EU decision-makers of this, and therefore a common Nordic voice is a necessity.

Forests in the Nordic countries are already subject to several sets of legislation and to voluntary sustainable forest management (SFM) certifications. The future EU policy should take into account this existing framework. In proving the sustainability of forest biomass, a practical and transparent approach based on sustainable forest management is a necessity.

Subsidies to be gradually removed

Fragmented and constantly changing biomass subsidy schemes in the EU distort the functioning of the energy and biomass markets, prompt the unnecessary transport of biomass, reduce investment willingness and diminish the overall efficiency of pursuing the renewable energy targets.

Subsidies for biomass, as for other mature renewable energy technologies too, have to be gradually phased out and the EU ETS alone has to steer further investments in biomass and fuel choice in existing plants. Should subsidy policies continue, they have to be technology-neutral and preferably regionally harmonised.

Read more:
Fortum Energy Review: More sustainable, less subsidised biomass

Kari Kankaanpää
Senior Manager, Climate Affairs