The core of the ecosystem is a partner network operating around Äänekoski bioproduct mill and using the pulp produced by Metsä Fibre or side streams of its pulp production. This generates extensive value chains and offers significant opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises to manufacture innovative bioproducts with high added value.
Äänekoski bioproduct mill began operations in 2017. Since then, its ecosystem has evolved further and an entirely new area of business has been born. Its more traditional products – softwood and birch pulp, biochemicals and bioenergy – have been joined by new bioproducts.
“The business model of a bioproduct mill is based on an efficient partner network, in which new products are upgraded in cooperation with various players. A single player cannot master every conceivable area of expertise, so it makes sense to build a network of capable partners to seek new hit products,” says Kaija Pehu-Lehtonen, Senior Vice President, Business Development Metsä Fibre.
Located alongside the bioproduct mill are the board mill, birch plywood mill and textile fibre demo plant of Metsä Group, as well as the production facilities of various partners.
“Businesses that specialise in biomaterials, biochemicals, bioenergy, and so on, are invited to join the ecosystem in Äänekoski. They can be of various sizes and at different stages of development,” she points out.
“Collaboration between the ecosystem partners stimulates the evolution of new bioproducts. This model creates significant synergies by joining together a wide range of core competencies.”
Turning pulp into textile
Metsä Group’s innovation company Metsä Spring is involved in investment projects for new bioproducts. The company and its partners focus on new projects to identify and develop business opportunities related to the sustainable forest-based bioeconomy and circular economy.
Metsä Spring and Japanese ITOCHU Corporation have built a demo plant for the production of bio-based textile fibres in Äänekoski.
The idea is to convert Äänekoski pulp into textile fibre using an innovative production process, explains Katja Konola-Manninen, Development Manager for the demo plant.
“We are presently conducting test runs to develop the quality of the textile fibre, but it is already at a fairly solid level. We are very confident in the product and are learning more all the time. ITOCHU has long experience in the textile industry and is playing a key role in exploring the textile fibre market,” she says.
Test runs will show the feasibility of the new concept. In the best scenario, a significantly larger textile fibre mill will be built in Finland in the future.
“Textiles fit well into the Äänekoski ecosystem. In the broader context, it is clear that the global textile industry needs new solutions. Turning Metsä Fibre’s pulp into textiles may be one way forward,” Konola-Manninen says.
Biodegradable food packaging
Metsä Spring has invested in a demo plant at Äänekoski to manufacture bio-based 3D fibre products. Its partner in this project is Valmet, a Finnish company that supplies technology and services to the pulp and paper industry.
The demo plant will enter its start-up phase in autumn 2021. It is estimated that by early 2022 the pilot plant will produce ready-made 3D fibre packages directly from wet wood fibre pulp without intermediate steps.
Jarkko Tuominen, Vice President, leading the project at Metsä Spring, explains that the goal is a 3D fibre product that can replace other kinds of package, such as those made from fossil raw materials.
“We feel there is a great opportunity to introduce a new kind of business to our local ecosystem,” he says. The roles of the partners are clear, with Valmet’s competency in the technology and Metsä Group’s expertise in packaging materials.
Pulp from Äänekoski bioproduct mill will be used as the main raw material for the 3D fibre products. The products are recyclable and biodegradable.
The first phase of the project aims to develop a new type of food packaging that is more sustainable, environmentally friendly and easy to use. According to a customer survey, there is already significant demand for such a product. If all goes well, the pilot plant will be followed by a full-scale industrial plant.
“The pilot plant will test the market in 2022 and the final investment decision will be based on those experiences,” Tuominen says.
High quality pulp production is really the platform that makes all the innovations of the ecosystem possible.
High-quality pulp promotes innovations
Another user of pulp from the Äänekoski bioproduct mill is Metsä Board´s Äänekoski board mill next door. Metsä Board is a part of Metsä Group.
Veli-Pekka Kyllönen, Director of the mill, says that collaboration with Metsä Fibre’s pulp operation is running very smoothly. The companies engage in joint R&D to develop quality and boost performance.
“We have a strong spirit of cooperation,” he says, citing openness and trust as its main elements.
“High quality pulp production is really the platform that makes all the innovations of the ecosystem possible.”
This article was originally published in Fibre Magazine issue 2021-2022.