Shining a light on wooden biomaterials

Materials World magazine
1 Jan 2018

Markus Mannström, Executive Vice President Biomaterials at packaging and pulp company Stora Enso, tells Gary Peters why wooden biomaterials need to be put on the map. 

Tell me about your background and career to date.

I have been working in the forest industry pretty much my entire career, and at Stora Enso for over 15 years. During this time, I’ve built up a good understanding of the industry. I moved to the Biomaterials Division in June 2017, however in my previous role as the CTO of the company, I was familiar with many of the initiatives underway. 

What’s been your biggest career highlight?

I have been lucky to have many diverse positions. To name a few – experiencing the start-up of a newspaper machine in Langerbrugge, Belgium, after an intensive 17 and a half month investment project, concluding joint venture negotiations with the provincial government in Guangxi, China, allowing Stora Enso to invest in new consumer board capacity for the local Chinese market, and becoming head of the Biomaterials Division.

Can you give me an outline of Stora Enso and the company’s objectives?

We are transitioning from a traditional paper and board producer to a renewable materials company. 

Our focus is on consumer board, packaging solutions, biomaterials and wood products. Our paper business, and our heritage and knowledge in forestry gives us a strong platform to build for future competitiveness.Important building blocks include fibre-based packaging, plantation-based pulp, innovation in biomaterials and sustainable building solutions.

There is great innovation potential in fibre-based packaging, with high-quality paperboards and recyclable products, as well as in new environmentally friendly products to replace non-renewable materials. Plantation-based pulp allows us to secure low-cost fibre for production, while building solutions in wood can meet growing population and urbanisation trends, as well as bringing environmental benefits.

Are there any projects you would like to highlight?

First, we have a very wide portfolio in market pulp and our strategy is to grow the hygiene, tissue, specialty paper and board markets. 

The second looks into regenerated cellulose. In this area, we are also looking into applications for fibres for the textile industry. The demand for more sustainable and renewable textile fibres is growing and many brand owners are looking into it. We are participating in research projects to find new viscose-type fibres to replace cotton and fossil-based materials like polyester. 

Then there is lignin. We started kraft-lignin production at our Sunila mill, Finland, in 2015 and the first application we are looking into is phenol replacement in phenolic resins used in plywood. Lignin is a versatile and renewable material and can be used in many other applications to replace fossil-based materials, such as carbon fibres. 

In addition, we are working on bio-based chemicals and chemical intermediates based on C5 and C6 sugars from biomass. In Raceland, Louisiana, USA, we are about to start a demonstration plant that will produce xylose from bagasse (a sugarcane waste), to provide xylitol, which is used in dental care and food applications.

What are the benefits of wooden biomaterials?

In many cases, we will be able to replace fossil-based materials with renewable options and lower CO2 footprint. We can also trace our raw material to the forest of origin, meaning that we can make sure that our raw material and all products made from it stem from sustainably managed forests. In many cases, for example in replacing phenolic resins, our backward integrated products have much better price stability compared to oil-based products.

How can they substitute or complement fossil-based materials?

What we say is that everything that is done today from fossil-based materials can be made from a tree tomorrow. The opportunities are huge, but of course more development is needed to make it economically feasible on an industrial scale. 

Renewable materials are an important part of solving many of the challenges we see in the world today, and their demand is mainly driven by global megatrends, such as eco awareness, urbanisation, digitalisation and climate change. We believe that the future is bio-based, but [we don’t want] a bio-based product to compete with food or agricultural land, hence wood is one of the most suitable materials.

What role can the biomaterials play in protecting the environment?

Replacing even a small fraction of fossil-based materials with 100% renewable materials from the forest would have an enormous impact on climate change and carbon emissions. The forests are renewable and act as carbon sinks. Moreover, products based on wood-fibres are recyclable and can in most cases be used for energy at the end of their life cycle, therefore contributing to a fossil-free ecosystem. Sustainable forestry is and always will be a foundation for driving change.

What are the challenges involved in producing the biomaterials and its use?

Forest biomass as a raw material differs a lot from oil-based products. When you are dealing with biomass, you need to be able to use all the fractions in the material, to cut down on waste and ensure it does not compete with food or agricultural land. Furthermore, you need to create a viable business model, which ultimately is what drives widespread market deployment. And, with the demands for a circular economy growing all the time, we need to ensure that we have an infrastructure that allows us to reuse and recycle the products.

You mention that wooden biomaterials are underrepresented – why is that?

There is a lot of development work ongoing, however, introducing and testing new materials takes time. We believe that in years to come we will see more and more wooden biomaterials, in many different industries and products. To achieve real traction in the market, it is essential that we can deliver products that in addition to being sustainable, provide value from a business and customer perspective. 

How do you think the market for wooden biomaterials will change in the future?

There will be more applications and products on the market, which I believe will grow and grow. We will reach a point where wooden biomaterials are competitive with their fossil fuel counterparts, both in terms of price and performance. At that point, things become very interesting, as customers increasingly call for more sustainable alternatives, whether that’s in buildings, clothes, packaging or other applications. The awareness that there is a viable alternative will be a real turning point. 

Are there any particular difficulties in trying to promote the use of wooden biomaterials?

It’s always a challenge to provoke interest from all stakeholders. Also, being green isn’t enough today – products must have at least the same or better performance as the current fossil-based products. 

We are putting a lot of effort into speeding up the introduction of biomass products to the market and have recently opened a large innovation research centre in Stockholm, Sweden, with around 70 scientists working on exploring new materials from trees. 

Bio-based renewable materials will play a large role in the future, not least from an environmental perspective, and as a company with immediate access to the raw material – trees – we are in the sweet spot.