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Aim of the project Connect4GreenTech

The objective of CONNECT4GREENTECH is to further both innovation and research through cross-fertilization of knowledge generated by researchers from four projects funded under the Nordic Green Growth and Innovation Program. The collaborative project CONNECT4GREENTECH will focus on improving further our understanding of the conditions of success for upscaling green technologies and on moving forward the innovation frontier of extracting high-value chemicals from lignin.

Lignin is an abundant side stream in pulp production with significant potential for contributing to decarbonization processes in several sectors of society. Nowadays mostly burnt for energy it also has a much broader high-value application potential from biofuels to chemicals, medicine, and food additives. The project will study the barriers and analyze the requirements for both technical and social innovation breakthroughs in the use of lignin and other biobased resources as sustainable, circular and renewable alternatives to petroleum-linked materials and resources.

Why lignin from wood has relevance for green growth

When targeting a transition to a low-carbon society, implying replacing fossil-based products, renewable resources are in a key role. However, when renewable resources are used for those purposes, the use has to be sustainable and not add to climate change, forest loss or biodiversity crisis. This is why production based on renewable resources should be efficient and also utilize and valorize often big side streams as much as possible.

Lignin is an abundant organic polymer found in trees and plants. Due to its great potential lignin could be utilized much better than at present. Globally, production of pulp and biofuels results in side streams containing ca. 100 Mt lignin, of which 98 % is incinerated for energy (or not used at all). Since long, it has been known that lignin could be processed to a wide variety of uses in different industrial fields. Globally, a market for lignosulfonates has existed since long. They are used as dispergers in concrete admixtures, binders in animal feed, in oil well drilling chemicals, and many other fields. The Norwegian company Borregaard Ligno Tech and the Swedish company Domsjö Fabriker belong to the major players in this 1 bill. USD market.

However, most of the globally huge lignin volume is used in energy production at pulp mills. Through this, pulp mills are important in the national energy mix in some countries, such as Finland and Sweden. The interest in and R&D focusing on processing lignin to more high-value end uses has increased in recent years, especially in the Nordic countries. One example is that the Finnish technology company Valmet has started to sell its lignin separation technology to pulp and paper companies, of which Domtar (USA) and Stora Enso (for its mill in Kotka, Finland) have been the first to separate, and develop valorization of, notable volumes of lignin. The use of non-toxic lignin-based phenolic resins in plywood production is increasing.

Many R&D-processes building on different innovations and targeting different user markets for lignin-based products have been going on in the Nordic countries. They are at different stages in the often long and unsure process from laboratory to full scale commercial production. The biggest step has by far been taken by the Finnish company UPM, which is building a 550 mill. euro biorefinery in Germany, with lignin-based applications for rubber and tire industry as one major segment. The Finnish company Stora Enso is building a pilot plant for production of lignin-based technical coal for batteries at its mill in Kotka, Finland and targets 1 bill. € turnover from biomaterials by 2030.

While this is promising, the market for lignin-based products is still tiny and production is accordingly small. The research conducted in the C4GT project has found several bottlenecks hindering lignin-based production. On the resource mobilization side, the biggest challenge is the lack of capital when moving from demonstration to commercial scale production. Separating and processing a big part of the lignin at pulp plants (instead of burning it for energy) would also imply a need to obtain a lot of renewable energy from the outside, which would be a big change for the forest-based industry.

Market formation however constitutes the biggest challenge. As long as production of fossil-based materials and products is not subjected to strong regulation and sanctions, the market for bio-based products replacing them stays small. That market could be created by policy targets (such as mandatory share of bio components in products) and through lead consumers (also the public sector) favoring bio-based products through procurement. If the price paid for lignin-based products would be much higher than the one paid for traditional forest-based products, the forest industry would be incentivized to change its production structure and business model towards new, high-value products. Also, if the demand for forest industry´s present production starts to decrease with poor margins as a result, such price and performance changes could also lead to bigger interest in new business such as lignin-based products.

One possible policy change that also could contribute to lignin valorization is sanctions focusing on the huge CO2 emissions from pulp factories, which originate from incinerating lignin. This energy production has been exempted from climate policy measures just like bio energy production generally. As more and more industrial sectors and activities are subjected to emission trade or other climate policy instruments, it is likely that pulp production will be targeted as well at some point. When that happens, pulp producers will have a strong incentive to cut the emissions. To separate and valorise lignin is one route, end of pipe capture and processing of CO2 another one and bettering energy efficiency at pulp mills is a third main route for doing it.

Many political, economic, and technological changes provide support for new lignin-based products. The climate ambitions have grown, the price for CO2 emissions has increased, EU and investors are allocating more funds than before to a green transition, and low carbon technologies have become cheaper. This has resulted in acceleration of transitions in key economic fields such as energy, construction, car industry, and production of chemicals and materials. Still, the incentives to replace fossil-based resources and products with low-carbon, renewable products, such as lignin-based, should be stronger than at present to make the transition happen at necessary speed.

(Text author: Jacob Donner-Amnell, University of Eastern Finland)

Presentations (video):

Resource mobilization and market formation in emerging biobased industries: the lignin case

By Massimo Pizzol (Aalborg University, Denmark) and Jakob Donner-Amnell (University of Eastern Finland) - video here

Proof-of-concept for an innovative lignin degradation technology

By Taina Ohra-Aho, VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland - video here

Project partners

Aalborg University Denmark

Aarhus University Denmark

Denmark's Technical University

Haldor Topsøe Denmark

University of Eastern Finland Finland

Uppsala University Sweden

VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd Finland

Connect4GreenTech was supported by Nordforsk, Nordic Innovation and Nordic Energy Research