BBI JU SWEETWOODS project: Creating high purity lignin and affordable platform chemicals from wood-based sugars

23 January 2019

The author and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, no stranger to the beauty of the natural world, famously said that the wonder is that we can see these trees and not wonder more. So much of our world has its roots in our trees, from clothes and furniture to food and paper.

SWEETWOODS is a BBI JU project that develops bio-based chemicals from wood sugars.

Now one project, SWEETWOODS, made up of nine European companies all of whom have wondered more about trees and their potential, is to begin producing wood-based biomaterials for the first time on an industrial scale.

This unique 43 million bio-economy project, funded by the Bio-based Industries Joint Undertaking (BBI JU) is now underway, with its key aim of developing a first-of-its-kind bio-fractionation flagship plant in Estonia to turn sustainable hardwood residues into high purity intermediate building blocks of cellulosic sugars and high-quality lignin.

To learn more about this project that has such huge potential, Luke Upton of Bio-Based World News spoke exclusively to two members of the consortium, Matti Heikkil CTO of Finlands pioneering enzyme technology company MetGen and Peep Pitk, R&D Manager of Europes largest pellet producer Graanul Invest that is building up the wood fractionation flagship plant in Estonia.

Matti tells more about the origins of the project: 'The concept began around five years ago. We knew about the potential of wood, that much more could be done with it and that a concept of biorefining could transform hardwood into higher added value products. Most of the solutions and technologies to make this happen were ready to be commercialised, but we just needed to match up the skills and partners to make the concept a reality.'

For Peep the opportunities of the partnership are clear: this project really is a gamechanger. He explains that it is outdated understanding that the only way to valorise technological wood is via highly resource-demanding chemical pulping processes. 'The wood fractionation concept that we are working on can offer so much more by converting over 90% of wood into useful high-value products with small ecological footprint.' What is clear through the conversation with Matti and Peep is the clarity of the SWEETWOODS vision. Unlike some other projects that pass through the bio-economy, the goal, and commercial potential of the offering has been clear from the outset. The consortium powering the project connects all the links in the value chain and covers the entire material process.

By fractionating the wood into pure sugars and lignin it becomes possible to further refine the material into high-added-value products that can be used to replace oil-based chemicals and plastics. New bio-based consumer products including sports mats, insulation panels and replacements for plastics are just some of the items mentioned in our discussion. Alongside MetGen and AS Graanul Invest, the seven other members of the European wide consortium are Tecnaro Gesellschaft zur industriellen Anwendung Nachwachsender Rohstoffe MBH (Germany), Ultima GMBH (Germany), Recticel N.V. (Belgium), Global Bioenergies (France), 2B Srl (Italy), Vertech Group (France) and Spinverse OY (Finland).

There has been a spirit of collaboration among the partners from the very start, states Peep but the project has also been greatly supported by the Bio-based Industries Joint Undertaking (BBI JU), a public-private partnership between the EU and the Bio-Based Industries Consortium (BIC) focused on developing the European bio-based economy.

'The next steps for the project are to build the flagship plant in Estonia to demonstrate its viability at industrial scale. But obviously there are still opportunities to take advantage of this innovative project's outcomes. We are very much open for discussions and open for business. And by partnering now, you could still become an early adopter of the novel biomaterials in a diversity of end-use cases. We believe this project will change the way the wood industry is perceived,' Matti concludes. 

Source: Bio Market Insights