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Firmly rooted with forward thinking

A train ride in Sweden and you are guaranteed to be able to spot a heating plant – if the destination is large enough to have a train stop, it has a heating plant. And it is almost certainly using biomass as fuel. Depending on where you travel, you are almost guaranteed to see or pass through the forest. And on certain routes, you see almost nothing else.

Valmet has an arborteum on its grounds in Sundsvall, Sweden.
Valmet has an arboretum on its grounds in Sundsvall, Sweden. Valmet has an arborteum on its grounds in Sundsvall, Sweden.

A recent trip was of the latter type, a three and half hour stretch between Stockholm and Sundsvall on the northeast Baltic coast. Here towns like Gävle, Söderhamn, Iggesund, Hudviksvall and of course Sundsvall are all steeped in Swedish forestry and forest industry history.

Back in the day pulpwood and sawlogs from the inland were floated downstream on the rivers to sawmills and pulp mills located on the coast, and from there, pulp, paper, and sawn wood shipped abroad. In tandem, technology developers sprung up around these providing the wood processing knowhow.

Some of these companies still exist today bearing the location in the name and or brand whereas other have over the century been incorporated into something bigger.

As it happens Valmet in Sundsvall is an example of the latter and the reason for the train ride, more specifically a visit to its Fiber Technology Center for pulping and biorefinery operations complete with lab and pilot testing facilities as well the adjacent manufacturing facility. The workshop marries state of the art technology with almost 150 years of engineering and metalworking heritage and hands-on craftsmanship.

Bound by a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) there is not much one can divulge at this point other than to say that Valmet were excellent hosts. It really was an inspirational and educational day filled with the best kind of aha moments, those that come from learning, the acquisition of new knowledge, insights, and understanding of how something works and why, having a complex physical, chemical or thermodynamic phenomenon explained or a myth busted.

Some of those aha moments represent Valmet’s commercial way forward in solving a problem, other technology providers have found alternative ways to address the same issue – ultimately the client decides. But the alternatives are not based on so-called “alternative facts” on the scientific fundamentals of pulp making or biomass combustion any more than an auto manufacturer would launch a car with square wheels.

Yet in a seemingly ever more dogmatic and fundamentalist climate, such “alternative” facts or truths are on the cards, so much so that the scientific and research community around the world feel that they have no alternative but to March for Science, on Earth Day no less.

It is a serious wake-up call, not because research is being questioned or criticized but because attempts are being made to replace research rigour with rhetoric and opinion.

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