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Leveraging on over a century of cellulosic ethanol expertise

It may come as a surprise to learn that the first drops of industrial cellulosic ethanol in Sweden were produced in 1909 and that by 1933, this ethanol was seen by the government as being good for the environment and the economy. Over a century later, cellulosic ethanol and ethanol derivatives are very much at the core of a company located in Örnsköldsvik and whose name says it all, Svensk Etanol Kemi AB – SEKAB.

The SEKAB ethanol industry complex with the Biorefinery Demo Plant in the foreground adjacent to the chemical plant.

It is no exaggeration to say that Örnsköldsvik, on the northeast coast of Sweden, is the hub of the Swedish cellulosic ethanol and ethanol derivative industry and that SEKAB is at the epicentre of it. Founded in 1985, SEKAB’s own impressive ethanol legacy is backed by over a century of industrial ethanol heritage.

Actually, one of the reasons that SEKAB was formed was to ensure the secure supply of ethanol-derived chemicals in Sweden as well as develop a fuel ethanol market, said Lena Nordgren, Biofuels Expert at SEKAB during a visit to Örnsköldsvik in mid-June.

The latter was no small task considering that in 1985, Sweden was not a Member of the European Union (EU). There was no Renewable Energy Directive (RED), no fuel ethanol market or biofuels sustainability criteria, in Sweden or the EU.

Yet in 2017, the total fuel ethanol – E85, ED95 and 5 percent admixture in gasoline – accounted for around 1.2 TWh of the national 93.9 TWh transportation fuel supply, according to figures from the Swedish Bioenergy Association (Svebio).

What is even more striking though is that the historical context is just as important and as relevant in 2018 as it was in 1985. Not to mention in 1918 when a convergence of circumstances brought about cellulosic ethanol to Örnsköldsvik in the first place. It is an intriguing story that follows.

Sulphite lye to ethanol

A shift from mechanical pulp to chemical pulp in the 1870’s coincided with the business acumen of the industrious Kempe family. In 1873, the Kempe brothers set up Mo and Domsjö AB (MoDo) following the inheritance of forest properties and inland sawmills in the region as well as a harbour facility in Domsjö, on the mouth of the Mo river in Örnsköldsvik, all of which had been acquired by an equally industrious Kempe senior.

In 1903, MoDo built its first sulphite pulp mill close to Domsjö. A drawback with sulphite process, however, was that almost half of the cellulose became dissolved in the cooking liquor, sulphite lye. With no means of recovery at the time – the recovery boiler wasn’t invented until the 1930’s – meant that this biochemical cocktail came out in the wash into the nearest recipient. Not good for fish or financials.

This changed in 1906 when two Swedish engineers, Gösta Ekström and Hugo Wallin, independently patented methods to convert the fermentable cellulosic sugars dissolved in the spent sulphite liquor (SSL) to ethanol, providing a saleable product – sulphite spirit.

Good timing too as it happens, notwithstanding the strict liquor laws of the time, ethanol soon found a use in Sweden as vehicle fuel during the First World War to replace petroleum spirit that had to be imported.

In 1903 MoDo built its first sulphite pulp mill in Örnsköldsvik and added a sulphite lye to ethanol plant in 1936. Since 2011, the pulp mill is owned by the world’s largest viscose producer India-headed Aditaya Birla Group. In 1903 it had an annual capacity of 6 000 tonnes, now 255 000 tonnes of dissolving cellulose, 120 000 tonnes of lignin and 14 000 tonnes of ethanol.

In short, the patents gave rise to a chemical industry in the wake of new sulphite pulp mills that were built around Örnsköldsvik and elsewhere. The world’s first sulphite ethanol plant began operations in Skutskär in 1909. Company records indicate that MoDo acquired a license and one of the patents for production in Domsjö though waited until 1936 before building the plant.

Environment, economy, and security of supply

While wastewater treatment was not likely to have been high on the regulatory agenda in the nascent 1900’s, deforestation was already a key concern in Sweden. Up to the 19th century, the policy view was exploitative, a “God-given good to be exploited with due consideration and restraint” as has been described in a 2009 report on Swedish forestry legislation.

In addition, privatisation of common and Crown forestlands had begun in earnest during the 19th century fuelled by forest industry industrialisation, not least reflected in MoDo’s own early acquisition history.

Seemingly, “due consideration and restraint” was not enough for the regulators since in 1903, the same year MoDo built its sulphite pulp mill in Domsjö, saw Sweden’s first Forestry Act, which amongst other things stipulated forest restocking and the concept of sustainable timber production.

View over Örnsköldsvik and the forested hinterland.

Thirty years later, in 1933, a government inquiry estimated that around one million tonnes of organic material was poured down the drain by Swedish pulp and paper mills, to the detriment of the environment and the economy.

Apart from utilising the residual material to produce a biochemical product, the processes developed by Ekström and Wallin respectively provided a form of biological wastewater treatment by reducing the biological oxygen demand (BOD) of the mill effluent.

Coupled with the Forestry Act, there was an incitement to invest in recovery and utilisation technologies such as producing sulphite spirits. By 1945, during the Second World War, MoDo had set up an organic chemical industry adjacent to its pulp mill with a wide range of biochemical products based on sulphite at its facilities in Domsjö.

Fuelling ethanol and derivative developments

Fast-forward to 1980’s when in 1983, Stiftelsen Svensk Etanol Utecklingen (SSEU) – Foundation for Swedish Ethanol Development was set up in Örnsköldsvik tasked to drive the development and marketing of ethanol and ethanol fuels.

SEKAB’s chemical plant where technical ethanol and ethanol derived chemicals are produced.

In 1985, SEKAB – Svensk Etanol Kemi AB (quite literally “Swedish Ethanol Chemistry Ltd”) was formed by Berol and MoDo pooling all the ethanol chemical industrial know-how and experience that have been on-going in the Domsjö industrial area since the late 1930s into a single company.

Already in 1986 we produced and supplied the first fuel ethanol to buses in Europe, two buses here in Örnsköldsvik. This was developed together with Scania that had experience from Brazil, said Lena Nordgren.

The development paid off as in 1989, SEKAB was awarded a contract to supply fuel ethanol for 30 buses for Stockholms Lokaltrafik (SL), the City of Stockholm’s public transport company. This was expanded in 1993 whereby Stockholm subsequently had the largest bus fleet in Europe running on ethanol.

A year later saw the three first E85 FlexiFuel passenger cars in Sweden – fittingly Ford Taurus, given Henry Ford’s own ethanol vision for his T-Ford’s – and imported directly from Detroit to the dealer in Örnsköldsvik while fuel distributor and retailer OK built the first E85 fuel dispenser.

Developing front-end technology

In 1996, SEKAB acquired Neste Oxo’s existing octanoic acid plant in Örnsköldsvik, an important part of the company’s ethanol-derived chemicals puzzle as here it produces chemicals such as acetaldehyde ethyl acetate, acetic acid, and technical ethanol products.

Karin Hägglund (left) Biorefinery Demo Plant Manager and Lena Nordgren, Biofuels Expert at SEKAB by the distillation column in the Biorefinery Demo Plant.

Thus far in SEKAB’s timeline, the company had no own ethanol production.

To continue reading – Bioenergy International no. 4-2018. Note that as a magazine subscriber you get access to the e-magazine and articles like this before the print edition reaches your desk!

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