1/2010

From the forest to the fuel tank

Risto Raiko

In the long run, the demand for biobased products and bioenergy
will surge in Europe. One of the preconditions for business success
is that the industry manages to build up sufficient export volumes,"
says Professor Risto Raiko

A future wood processing mill may produce biofuel in addition to pulp and paper.

In the present decade, forest industry expenses, such as raw material, energy and personnel costs, have soared at a faster rate in Finland than our rival countries. The forest industry is undergoing unprecedented change that will open up great opportunities but also pose threats. The industry's key goal is to improve profitability and competitiveness. Finland will have to compete against low-cost countries by investing in quality and a high degree of refining.

Up until now, the forest industry has mainly produced bulk. The current production method is no longer competitive. The industry is now seeking to boost its competitiveness by setting its sights on the growing market for renewable energy.

Rising demand for biofuels

The European Union has made a commitment to CO2-neutral electricity by 2050. The union has endorsed a target of producing 10 percent of its energy via renewable sources by as early as 2020, and the target will be gradually increased.

"In the long run, the demand for biobased products and bioenergy will surge in Europe. One of the preconditions for business success is that the industry manages to build up sufficient export volumes," says Professor Risto Raiko, head of the Department of Energy and Process Engineering from TUT.

Clock is ticking as oil reserves run out

Global oil reserves will start to run out in around 2020. The price of oil is set to skyrocket, which will stunt the economic growth of superpowers, such as China and India.

"Our production industry is energy-intensive. We need to think ahead and develop alternative energy production to replace fossil fuels. If we fail to harness renewable energy sources, production will come to a standstill", reminds Professor Risto Raiko.

The Department of Energy and Process Engineering headed by Raiko develops technologies and materials based on sustainable processes, raw materials and energy production for energy, forest and process industries. The department's long-term goal is a low-emission and environmentally friendly future in a healthy living environment.

Wood fuels and other renewable energy sources alone will not revolutionize the world - the time of cheap energy is over. The energy crisis will force unforeseen changes in the Western lifestyle. In the future, people won't be jet-setting around the globe or driving to a mega mall to buy a carton of milk.

"We will have to run our society on considerably less energy than we are doing now. The modern mobile lifestyle will change. We will see a downturn in business travel and exotic holidays in favour of video conferencing and electric trains. Urban areas will also become more densely built", predicts Raiko.

The change will happen gradually over the next 30-50 years. The advent of a new energy boom will take even longer.

"It may take as long as a hundred years until new energy sources - potentially fusion energy - yield so much cheap energy that we see the return of the era of energy affluence."

A conventional paper mill that produces pulp and paper may be replaced with the concept of a biorefinery. A biorefinery could either be an independent operator or a functional unit connected to a pulp or paper mill. It would refine biomass into, for example, biofuels, bioenergy and other biobased products - either raw materials or refined products.

There are plans to build four biorefineries producing second-generation biodiesel in Finland. To that end, Finnish companies are currently developing biofuels production. The idea is that forest industry could produce either ready-made fuel or raw material that could be further processed at an oil refinery.

Wood is a treasure

In the future, wood could potentially be used to produce, for example, energy in the form of fuel oil or wood pellets or processed into raw materials for the plastics and pharmaceutical industry, perhaps even food industry.

"Wood is a natural treasure and we have yet to discover all its possibilities. Sludge, a by-product of paper and pulp production, might even become a valuable raw material for human consumption", envisions Raiko.

"Even if wood contained only a trace of some precious ingredient, the industry's substantial material flows may still make extraction profitable. For example, an ingredient that could be used as functional food could generate valuable added revenue."

Text: Katri Syvärinen
Photo: Petri Laitinen

 

 

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