Until recently, ideas of running pulp production on a vast scale and of using wood as raw material for clothes, musical instruments, the interiors and upholstery of cars, and the surfaces of household appliances, seemed utopian. Now they are about to become reality.
The past few months have been busy for Jari Haapanen, Managing Director of Aqvacomp Oy, a company specialising in plastic and composite materials and based in Sastamala, in the southwest of Finland. The biocomposite introduced to the market by Aqvacomp is generating increasing interest in a number of different fields and keeping Haapanen busy, crisscrossing the country and the globe.
Coming in third together with the Joensuu-based Flaxwood Oy, which makes high-quality musical instruments from composite materials, in an international innovation competition held in Germany last December has served to boost Aqvacomp's prospects even further. Its biocomposite-based clarinet was among the trio of medallists that received awards at the biomaterials competition in Cologne, the biggest and most prestigious of its kind in the world. The winners were selected by a panel composed of more than two hundred industry enterprises and experts.
Aqvacomp's biocomposite interests musicians and the musical instruments industry. A finished instrument looks and feels like real wood. It can also withstand variations in temperature and humidity.
In Aqvacomp's biocomposite structures, pulp fibre is used to reinforce the plastic materials. Compared to traditional plastic composites, it is more durable, lighter and easier to work. In terms of the musical instruments industry, the material opens up entirely new perspectives on mass production.
“The fact that the end product looks and feels like genuine wood is an important advantage, of course. In addition, the composite can withstand variations in temperature and humidity. While these factors are especially important in manufacturing musical instruments, they interest other parties as well. The car and household appliance industries, for example, are looking for materials with which to replace oil-based plastics,” says Haapanen.
A greener alternative to the plastics industry
Established in 2015, Aqvacomp is planning to build a plant of its own – its first – next to Metsä Fibre's Rauma pulp mill. It also plans to open an equivalent plant in the area of the bioproduct mill under construction at Äänekoski. Initially, the company plans to hire some twenty people.
“Having been given the opportunity to partner up with Metsä Fibre has been great for an SME like us. This is a win-win situation for both of us.”
The company aims to achieve sales totalling EUR 50 million by 2020. In addition to Europe, it is targeting the Chinese market. “We offer a greener choice of raw material for the plastics industry. It is similar to the situation in which an old petrol car is replaced with an E85 version,” says Haapanen.
“In biocomposite materials, pulp fibre is used to reinforce the plastic materials,” says Jari Haapanen, Managing Director of Aqvacomp. The company is planning to build its first production plant next to Metsä Fibre's Rauma pulp mill.
Everything recovered and recycled
Just as Aqvacomp opens up entirely new application areas for Metsä Fibre, so does its cooperation with EcoEnergy SF introduce it to the market for biogas. Metsä Group's bioproduct mill at Äänekoski will be the first in its industry to have an adjoining biogas plant. At the same time, it will become a clear flagship in terms of energy efficiency and recycling, according to Tero Mäki, Managing Director of EcoEnergy SF.
“Practically all of the mill's waste and side streams can be re-used as biogas, energy or fertiliser. In the past, they were a major and difficult cost item, whereas in the future, they will become an increasingly important part of its own environmental efficiency and cost-effectiveness.”
One of EcoEnergy SF's backers is Envor Protech, a pioneer in the field of anaerobic digestion technology and biogas in Finland. Over the years, the parent company has supplied numerous facilities to customers both in Finland and abroad.
While the technology is already used in many branches of industry, the problem with regard to pulp production so far has been lignin, wood's own adhesive. The plant to be built at Äänekoski will overcome even this problem. The end product generated after the anaerobic digestion and drying can be used as a source of energy and as a replacement for fossil fuels, also in the process of pulp production.
Once everything is ready, the bioproduct mill will be self-sufficient in terms of energy, and everything that can be recycled will be recycled. The vehicles in the mill area and the heavy traffic visiting it will run on biogas, and every last bit of the dried residual will be put to use as, for instance, forest fertiliser. In the future, the plant is intended to process and refine the biodegradable waste from the surrounding area and municipality, in addition to the side streams from the bioproduct mill.
Biogas for the consumer market
Taking a perspective that spans a few years, Mäki envisions a situation in which his company can start producing synthetic biogas fit for vehicles directly from energy wood at the Äänekoski plant. As volumes grow, the company intends to sell biogas for traffic use in cooperation with the Gasum chain.
One distribution station is to be located next to the bioproduct mill and another by the trunk road, in the vicinity of the Äänekoski exit. “Once we have a few refuelling stations in Central Finland, you will be able to drive a gas-fuelled car from Helsinki to Oulu with a single refuelling stop,” says Mäki.
Tero Mäki, Managing Director of EcoEnergy SF, promises a refuelling station that distributes biogas derived from materials produced by the bioproduct mill for gas-fuelled cars within the next few years.
Text: Timo Sormunen
Photos: Petteri Kivimäki and Harri Nurminen