What can a tree do? Four researchers shared their knowledge of some of the exciting opportunities at the second webinar of the BLOOM Bioeconomy Webinar Series held on 28 May. The theme was research and developments in the forest industry.
The first presentation was given by Katariina Torvinen, Research Manager at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd, who talked about how cellulose fibres from wood and other plants can be used as alternatives to plastic. “Cellulose fibres can be the super material of the future,” Katariina said while highlighting the importance of avoiding giving new materials harmful properties that plastics have, such as the microplastics that are released by certain plastic-based products. “We are not creating cellulose fibres to replace fossil materials, no, we are creating new, superior materials!” she emphasised. In addition, Katariina mentioned some Finnish brands already working with new materials from cellulose fibres: WALL+, Lumir, Spinnova, Woodio, Woodly, Paptic, Sulapac, Repolar, and Montisera. To the question of which products made out of cellulose fibres have the most commercial potential today, Katariina highlighted packaging materials and textile fibres.
Richard Gosselink, Dr. ing. at Wageningen Food & Biobased Research, spoke about products made of lignin, a material that can be derived from wood. Richard explained that lignin has plenty of characteristics that we could make use of: it is a natural binder, is more water-resistant than cellulose fibres, it is a UV stabiliser and is in many ways similar to products derived from fossil resources. “There is a lot of research on how to use lignin in new materials,” Richard said. One example mentioned is using lignin instead of bitumen as a binder in asphalt, which has already been tested on roads in the Netherlands. “It extends the lifetime of roads and requires less maintenance, which makes a good business case,” he said. Another example where lignin can replace fossil-based materials, thanks to its natural binding properties, is resins. Richard concluded by emphasising that we need to make sure that the demand for lignin can be met if we want to see these products in the future, and we need to continue demo testing these products in real-life conditions.
Following Richard, Josefin Illergård, Ph.D., researcher and platform coordinator at Treesearch, talked about the quest for new materials from the forest. Researchers are working on understanding trees down to a nanoscale level to discover their different components, she explained. Josefin said the smallest fibre to be found in a tree is nanocellulose. Since it absorbs a lot of water, it looks like a gel and can be used in ice creams, aerogels, and foams. “Another component to be found in a tree,” Josefin said “is fibrils”. It is a nanomaterial that can be used to create the strongest biomaterial in the world, eight times stronger than spider silk”. Josefin stressed the importance of people from different scientific backgrounds coming together and cooperating in order to create these new materials of the future. One listener asked if there might be dangers with using nanomaterials from trees, to which Josefin stressed the importance of testing and evaluation before these materials reach consumers.
The last speaker was Diana TuomasJukka, Dr., Principal Scientist and Team Lead of Sustainable Bioeconomy at the European Forest Institute, who spoke about how the forest can contribute to a sustainable circular bioeconomy. Diana explained that the forest takes up around 38 percent of Europe’s total land area. Today, we are harvesting two-thirds of what is growing each year. Hence, Diana commented that there is room to expand our usage of the forest. “These numbers exclude all the protected areas and areas not accessible by machinery,” she added. Diana moved on to talk about the importance of taking a holistic view of the economy, whereby used products aren’t thrown away but used again. “Part of the new challenge is making products that have circularity in their design,” she said. She concluded by highlighting the importance of biodiversity, forest management, and good harvesting practices in order to obtain a sustainable circular bioeconomy.
The webinar “What the tree can do!” was arranged by the Nordic and Dutch Hubs in the EU BLOOM project. It was the second out of five webinars on “Bioeconomy in our daily lives” exploring different aspects of the bioeconomy. See upcoming webinars on the BLOOM website.