VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland
Riding the bioeconomy with results
VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland is internationally renowned as a pioneer in biotechnology and in thermochemical biomass conversion, but we also have a firm foothold in European innovation policy through our close cooperation with dozens of research organisations for the purpose of fostering European self-sufficiency and resource efficiency. “Bioeconomy means the creation of well-being through technology and utilisation of biobased raw materials, and new sustainable opportunities are to be found where traditional industries intersect,” says Anne-Christine Ritschkoff, VTT’s Executive Vice President. She continues: “But leveraging those possibilities is attractive only if it is commercially viable.”
VTT estimates that by 2030, the European forestry industry will have undergone a major reform and will supply international markets with advanced bio-based fibres, chemicals and polymer products made from wood raw materials. Material recycling and re-use will become commonplace, and the potential of industrial byproducts will be used to the maximum extent possible. In addition, side streams which are not suitable for the production of added-value products will be used for making transportation fuels and bio-energy. Finland has a strong interest in developing into a superpower of the bioeconomy, cleantech and sustainable mining industry, because of our high-level expertise in these areas, extensive forest resources and current industrial base. Currently, the value of the bioeconomy in Finland is 10% of the national economy, and the aim is to double the figure by 2025.
With respect to cleantech, the target is to increase the turnover to EUR 50 billion by 2020, while creating tens of thousands of new jobs with the help of innovation investments. Instead of individual technologies, both Finland and Europe as a whole are now concentrating on building entire ecosystems and optimising life-cycle thinking. Our extensive sustainable development R&D services can be applied to a number of disciplines – from green ICT to full-scale recovery of waste. VTT has provided cutting-edge technology and high-quality research services in the field of the bioeconomy to facilitate sustainable development.
An example of this is the next-generation bioproduct mill to be built in Äänekoski, Finland, by Metsä Group. Bioproduct mill’s bioeconomy ecosystem is designed by VTT, and relies on the latest technology. VTT has visited Äänekoski to share its views on new business opportunities for local businesses that want to join the ecosystem. Once completed, the bioproduct mill would increase the share of renewable energy in Finland by about two percentage points. VTT has also established a research centre in Brazil, and providing companies with solutions for processing wood and fibres, biotechnological processing and energy production.
Ground-breaking technologies for forest biomass
At VTT, we are convinced that the forestry and chemical industries are increasingly interconnected, and we also believe that the key sectors of the future are, besides the forestry industry, the energy, food, and agricultural sectors. VTT’s spearhead programme Bioeconomy Transformation plays a major role in the diversification of the applications of VTT’s technology and expertise from the forestry industry to the agro-industry, while the “green gold” of Finland, meaning the forest biomass, will be used more effectively than ever before.
Currently, VTT is developing advanced biomass products, such as plant-based food and food ingredients, new fibre products, bio-based high-performance chemicals and packaging products. In cooperation with Tampere University of Technology and Aalto University, we are for example running an extensive research project on designing cellulose products that include the development of cellulose-based consumer products and technical textiles. The project aims to use the special characteristics of cellulose to combine the best features of cotton and polyester.
The European industrial sector aims to produce 30 per cent of all speciality and fine chemicals from renewable raw materials by 2030, while 25 per cent of the demand for transport energy needs should be met with sustainable biofuels. Bio-based transport fuels can be produced from forestry waste using a gasification-based methods at VTT in co-operation with industries. The biofuels are produced only from non-edible raw materials, such as second-generation by products and underutilised biomasses. Similar gasification and synthesis technologies can also be utilised for large-scale production of renewable plastics, aromatics or base chemicals, such as ammonia for fertilisers.
In addition to the gasification route, VTT has developed methods based on the pyrolysis of biomass, and currently, Finland is a leader in the commercialisation of these methods. VTT cooperated with Fortum, UPM and Valmet in developing the new technology, with significant financial support from Tekes – the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation. The new technology enables the combined production of electricity, thermal energy, and bio-oil in the same plant – a sustainable and cost-effective solution. The European Association of Research and Technology Organisations (EARTO) presented its innovation award to VTT for the integration of pyrolysis and fluidised bed combustion technologies, and Fortum won a special international innovation award at the Global District Energy Climate. Biofuels have a significant positive environmental impact, because carbon dioxide emissions can be reduced by 70–90% by replacing fossil fuels in heat production with bio-oil.
In 2013, VTT started the first fleet tests with renewable Finnish diesel in co-operation with UPM. The cars for the fleet tests were supplied by VV-Auto Group Oy. The fleet tests are part of a larger project coordinated by VTT, with the target of encouraging companies to commercialise renewable energy traffic solutions. UPM’s renewable diesel, known as UPM BioVerno, is an innovation that will reduce traffic-induced greenhouse gas emissions by up to 80% compared to fossil fuels and that is suitable for all diesel-powered vehicles.
Scientists at VTT are developing new sources of bioplastics to substitute the use of crude oil. Biotechnology helps in replacing traditional petrochemical methods and the consumption of non-renewable natural resources with methods of sustainable chemistry. Both straw and waste generated by the agricultural sector and forestry contains sugars, which – with the help of microbes – can be processed to make raw material for bioplastics.
An example of our development projects is ground-breaking technology for U.S.-based NatureWorks LLC to manufacture bioplastics. NatureWorks’s bioplastic, Ingeo is made from renewable and 100% plant-based raw material. Making bioplastic bottles from Ingeo is also very cost-effective. It results in 60% less greenhouse gas emissions than regular alternatives, and no traditional oil is needed. Applications of bioplastics include food packaging and interior decoration. VTT’s specialists are experts in metabolic engineering of microbial and plant production strains, bio-based production technologies, as well as in metabolomics and synthetic biology.
Biotechnology helps to reduce the cost of cancer drugs
We have used metabolic engineering and metabolomics in our research projects for more than 10 years now; an example of this is our studies on the secondary metabolism of the Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus). VTT executed and coordinated the EU project SmartCell, which developed environmentally friendly and economically feasible alternatives to the chemical synthesis of rare and complex pharmaceutical compounds. The focus of the project was on studying the genes of the Madagascar periwinkle and two of its compounds, vincristine and vinblastine. These compounds are used for treating Hodgkin’s disease, breast cancer, small-cell lung cancer and leukaemia, but their synthetic production is not economically viable.
VTT developed a cell culture technique for the project and demonstrated that large-scale production of plant cells in bioreactors can be profitable. The technology can be used to substitute environmentally harmful production processes, such as chemical syntheses or the use of rare and vulnerable species of plants in industrial production. In addition to plant cell production platforms, we are actively developing yeast and mould production platforms to produce proteins and small molecules. Tiina Nakari-Setälä, Vice President of Business Development, believes that the pharmaceutical industry is now able to adopt less expensive raw materials on a larger scale by applying the biotechnological production platforms developed by VTT.
A biovision by VTT:
It’s 2044. You are sitting in a zero-energy café, where a robot serves you a super soy latte with a delicious pastry made of nothing but berries. You are thinking about your latest business idea of a resin-based medicine while being hologram-interviewed by a journalist about a plant that reacts to different combinations of light and nutrients by producing differently coloured and flavoured tomatoes. That hit product from last year was developed by you in your home lab. At the end of the interview, you shake hands with the journalist remotely using a touchglove. For a moment, your thoughts drift to the new bio-based pot model for your tomato plant, which you should start printing out with your 3D printer as soon as possible.
You are stirred by a phone call; it’s your friend who wants to meet you over lunch. She asks: “Should we celebrate and go for synthetic steaks, or will broad-bean patties do?” Your friend has just had good news from her doctor. By analysing sensor-measured data, the doctor had predicted an emerging cancer and prevented the disease entirely with medication personally tailored for her. “You are forgetting that I only eat advanced plant products these days. Except when travelling, when I can allow myself a couple of larvae or insects,” you reply with a chuckle. You have been friends long enough to have seen how kerosine has been replaced with liquid fuel manufactured with microbes, and have had many wonderful trips together.
A quarter of an hour later, you are sitting in a revolving restaurant powered by stored solar energy, enjoying a modified broad-bean patty and asking about your friend’s work. “Given the current economic situation, I think we should go for forestry and agriculture. I’m thinking of starting to grow a forest with enzymes and then selling it to the manufacturing industry for the production of fibre-based materials,” she says enthusiastically. “And later I could even lather pieces of trees in my own garage,” she continues. “Don’t you think it would be better to make rosemary honey, or something similar?”, you ask her. “But forestry and agricultural business can easily become profitable in communities, and there are so many opportunities – even for me, a 2020s immigrant, because forests and agricultural land have been hit hard in many other countries,” she says firmly. You have to admit that she is probably right, because the living conditions abroad have deteriorated since the latest natural disasters.
Text: Annu Kusmin