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Nordic lignocellulosic show of strength at Lignofuels 2019

A specialist conference, ACI’s Lignofuels 2019 was perhaps a watershed event for the lignocellulosic to biofuels- and biochemical community. With nigh on record turnout at the auspicious Holmenkollen venue (ski-jump) in Oslo, Norway, the atmosphere during the two-day proceeding in mid-February was tangibly upbeat. Especially amongst those who attended the pre-conference site visit to Borregaard's biorefinery in Sarpsborg.

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The Scandic Holmenkollen in Oslo, Norway.
The Scandic Holmenkollen in Oslo, Norway was the hilltop venue for Lignofuels 2019.

There would seem to be a good reason for this optimism, not least in the Nordics. All five countries – Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden– have implemented a carbon tax. With the exception of Denmark, all are large countries with low population densities on the fringe of Europe thus per capita emissions from transportation are high.

Nonetheless, Sweden and Austria are the only two EU member states that in 2016 have reached their 10 percent biofuels in transportation by 2020. Already next year (2020), Norway will introduce a 0.5 percent biojet fuel quota for aviation while in Sweden, a proposal to reach 30 percent by 2030 has recently been tabled.

The biorefinery demo plant at the Borregaard pulp mill complex in Sarpsborg, Norway.
The biorefinery demo plant at the Borregaard pulp mill complex in Sarpsborg, Norway.

In Finland, the Finnish Parliament approved a law just days prior to the conference, which sets a gradually increasing 30 percent biofuels target for 2030. Furthermore, the law sets a world-leading advanced biofuels target of 10 percent in 2030

Nordic-headed forest industry majors like Borregaard, UPM, and Södra, all present at the conference, have already been walking the talk for quite some time. In Norway, Borregaard with cellulosic ethanol and in Finland, UPM Biofuels with its own tall oil derived renewable diesel brand BioVerno.

Perry Toms, CEO, Steeper Energy.
“We are very proud that Statkraft and Södra selected our technology to develop a biofuel plant since development is a team game,” remarked Perry Toms, CEO of Steeper Energy, a developer of hydrofaction technology that uses supercritical water and a catalyst to produce a liquid hydrocarbon from “wet” biomass.

In Sweden, Södra has a stake in crude tall oil (CTO) upgraders SunPine, as well as a methanol extraction plant under construction at its Mönsterås pulp mill. It has also partnered with Norwegian power major Statkraft in the Silva Green Fuel joint venture in Norway to build an advanced biofuels demonstration plant.

Although not discussed at the conference, one could also add biogas from wastewater treatment facilities at pulp and paper mills that are upgrading it to vehicle grade biomethane – Metsä Fibre’s Äänekoski bioproduct mill in Finland and Stora Enso’s Nymölla mill in Sweden are two such examples.

Advanced biofuels capacity is likely to at least double from current production by the mid-2020s. Discussing UPM's "Beyond Fossils" and sustainable feedstock sourcing were Dr Sari Mannonen (left) and Marko Janhunen.
Advanced biofuels capacity is likely to at least double from current production by the mid-2020s. Discussing UPM’s “Beyond Fossils” and sustainable feedstock sourcing were Dr Sari Mannonen (left) and Marko Janhunen.

Noteworthy too from research, development and deployment perspective is that both Borregaard and UPM seem to have developed own process pathways and conversion technologies to produce or extract products from existing residue streams and currently said to have no intention of licensing the IP or technologies to third parties.

Södra, on the other hand, has too identified products (e.g. methanol) that may be commercially viable to produce or extract from existing residue streams but has partnered with existing technology suppliers, in this case, Andritz.

As always networking during the conference breaks a key component.

Add to this the Nordic oil refiners and renewable fuel producers Neste, Preem, and St1. Although not strictly lignocellulosic, Finland-headed Neste is the world’s largest HVO and biojet fuel producer.

Compatriot Stl has developed technologies for satellite production of ethanol from food- and food industry waste, including the world’s first such refinery-integrated plant. The company is also developing cellulosic ethanol production in Finland.

Patrick Pitkanen Director Biorefining Business Development and Production, St1.
Patrick Pitkanen Director Biorefining Business Development and Production, St1 discussing advanced ethanol production.

Preem, on the other hand, produces renewable diesel and gasoline as its Swedish refineries using amongst others SunPine’s biocrude. Then there is SEKAB, cellulosic ethanol, and ethanol-derived chemical producer and process developer. Together with heavy-duty vehicle (HDV), bus, and engine manufacturer Scania, it is also behind the ED95 ethanol fuel that is seeing a revived interest.

Taken all together along with other projects like RenFuel, Quantafuel, Pyrocell, and UPM’s plans for Kotka in the pipeline, pun intended, the picture becomes clearer – commercial lignocellulosic conversion technologies and products are available with Nordic companies pushing the envelope.

Indeed, some with improved properties and characteristics compared to their fossil counterparts aside from greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction and other environmental benefits.

Herein lies a caveat, cost. Energy products, policy-driven and/or subsidized or not, will almost certainly be the lowest hanging and lowest value fruit whereas a pharmaceutical-grade platform biochemical will be at the high end of the payment capability spectrum.

As Gisle Løhre Johansen, SVP R&D and New Business Development at Borregaard put it, the biorefinery model is “creating as much value as possible from as much of the biomass as possible.” Thus lignofuels are one product category in the biorefinery portfolio and are subject to change

Borregaard's bioproduct family tree.
Borregaard’s bioproduct family tree.

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