Where will new bioeconomy innovations come from?

Population growth, urbanisation, and growing prosperity use up more and more natural resources. This poses social challenges and a problem for the planet’s carrying capacity. Jussi Manninen, EVP of Solutions for Natural Resources and Environment, explains what solutions the bioeconomy offers for these challenges.

Jussi Manninen EVP SONE VTT

We need to adopt a circular economy in order to ensure the sufficiency of natural resources. There is a simultaneous drive to promote the efficient use of all materials and to substitute renewable natural resources for non-renewable ones.

Traditional means of increasing resource efficiency, such as recycling, are not enough to solve the challenge relating to the sufficiency of natural resources. We need to question

  • how and which materials to use to design and build our products and services,
  • how to increase the circulation and value generation of natural resources, and
  • how to replace traditional, ownership-based business and behavioural models.

Finland fares well in the bioeconomy

The bioeconomy based on renewable natural resources is especially exciting for Finland, as we have a competitive edge over many other countries. Our competitiveness stems from our raw material resources, our know-how, and the structure of our industry.

The bioeconomy is often viewed specifically from the perspective of raw material resources. Our forests are a growing resource, so why not make use of them? In my opinion, the question should be reworded: How can we use the bioeconomy to promote well-being, growth, and employment with the help of our know-how and new innovations? This widens the perspective beyond Finland’s borders and highlights the importance of technological solutions and services.

Where will new bioeconomy innovations come from? Despite its renewable nature, biomass is not an infinite resource. In fact, biomass is limited compared to oil and the other non-renewable natural resources that it needs to replace. This is why we are trying to develop technologies for the efficient use of biomass as well as value-added products that keep their value for as long as possible.

New biomaterials, such as nanocellulose, have opened our eyes to all the possibilities they offer. Solutions for the problem of raw material sufficiency are being sought with the help of rapidly growing biomass, such as algae, and by making use of waste as well as carbon dioxide. Renewability and circular economy principles are combined in an excellent way in a carbamate technology developed by VTT, which turns waste cotton into new fibres.

VTT has solid bioeconomy know-how

VTT has been investing in new bioeconomy innovations almost throughout its existence. Our first patent in 1945 concerned the manufacture of lignocellulose sheets. In the last few years, we have conducted bioeconomy research as part of our Bioeconomy Transformation research programme, the final report of which was published on 15 February. We also launched a campaign called Making of Tomorrow at the same time, which will showcase bioeconomy innovations and how they affect our daily lives.

What makes the bioeconomy especially exciting and also challenging is the fact that bioenergy and biofuels play a big role in current and future renewable energy portfolio. A good question is how much of biomass should be converted to energy instead of using it as materials and chemicals.

VTT will be publishing findings from a research project that involved using scenarios to understand different kinds of bioeconomy development paths until 2050 during the spring. Each scenario had a different development path for energy technologies and bio-based products, and the results were analysed relative to the realisation of national economy and climate targets. It is already clear on the basis of the first results that the growth of the gross domestic product and total productivity can be accelerated and energy and climate targets met by investing in new value-added bioeconomy products.

There is no patented solution for ensuring the sufficiency of resources. It is nevertheless certain that the use of natural resources needs to be considerably more efficient than now and that renewable resources need to be substituted for non-renewable ones. VTT helps businesses and the entire society to succeed in these challenges and opportunities.

Jussi Manninen, Executive Vice President, Solutions for Natural Resources and Environment
Twitter: @jjmanninen

Forestry is a sunrise industry

When digitalisation first began to gain momentum, forestry was unfairly dubbed a sunset industry. At the heart of the industry’s problems was the dwindling demand for print paper and newspapers in the West, which resulted in overcapacity and the closing down of the oldest paper mills.

The consumption of other wood-based products – tissue paper, packaging, biofuels and goods based on forestry by-products – increases all the time. The slowing down of the growth of the Chinese market has not affected demand for tissue paper and packaging, as the Chinese do not want to compromise their comfort of living and digitalisation continues to increase demand for high-quality, smart packaging.

The hope of Finland’s bioeconomy

From the perspective of our national economy, forestry has become Finland’s leading export industry, and we have only just begun to utilise our ever-growing wood resources. Competitors in other countries have noticed this and begun to buy Finnish forest and plan new investments. The mood is high, as Finland’s forests are growing at a comfortably faster rate than felling, and the Government has chosen forests as the source of the country’s future growth.

New bio-based materials and products are being developed all the time, and they will play a key role in adding value to our export trade.

Replacing oil-based products by wood-based ones is a growing trend around the world. Pulp offers an environmentally sustainable substitute for cotton. With the help of nanofibers, it can be made as strong as steel and used to produce various bio-based chemicals. Considerable amounts of lignin can be extracted, which, according to VTT’s latest studies, can be used as a concrete plasticiser, to make chemicals, and as dietary fibres.

Towards using wood in biorefineries

After the Paris Agreement, Finland set itself the ambitious climate target of raising the percentage of renewable transport fuels to 40% by 2030. According to studies by VTT and the VATT Institute for Economic Research, the best solution for Finland’s national economy is to produce biofuels from wood and especially forest residues. This must be done in a sustainable way.

A hierarchy according to which wood materials are used so as to maximise added value is essential. Premium parts are used in construction and design products, less viable parts to make materials and chemicals, and the rest to produce energy. This means that all use of wood needs to take place in biorefineries. Using wood solely to produce energy does not make sense. Finland cannot meet its climate targets without integrated wood use.

More demonstration-scale plants

Now is the time to invest in the development of bio-based products. This will be possible at VTT’s new Bioruukki piloting centre, which aims to accelerate product development and piloting related to the bio-based circular economy. We also need more industrial-scale demonstration plants like Fortum’s bio-oil plant in Joensuu. The plant has successfully demonstrated a method to turn forest residues into bio-based oil by means of fast pyrolysis. The competitive advantage given by digitalisation also needs to be maximised.

The public sector needs to support the industrial sector in taking bolder and faster steps towards developing value-added bio-based products. Without these steps, the sunrise will not reach Finland but will only shine in the East. For example, Japan is already planning a sizeable investment in the development of products based on nanocellulose.

Finland has the means to do well, but more urgency is needed, or the potential for adding value will be lost to other market players.

Kari Larjava

Executive Vice President

Synthetic super fungi promise to revolutionise biotechnological potential

Mushrooms are a superfood, but few are aware of the many other uses of fungi.

Fungi stand to have a major impact on our future, not just because of their ability to break down organic matter in nature and therefore accelerate the carbon cycle, but also more and more because of their role as producers of fuels, chemicals and bioplastics in the industrial sector.

In addition to edible fungi, there is a range of yeasts and moulds with a variety of properties. These microbes have a natural ability to metabolise wood, straw and different types of organic waste, as well as the sugars derived from these materials, into products that have uses for humans, such as antibiotics, alcohols, vitamins and laundry detergent enzymes. Fungi are – or could very easily become – a natural and important part of bioeconomy.

So why does Finland’s bioeconomy discussion boast about ‘selling ceps to the Italians’? And why do bioeconomy plans so rarely talk about biotechnology itself and the possibilities it opens up in this new kind of economy, which is all about finding alternatives for fossil resources and making use of biological plant material?

Most consumers know that traditional biotechnology products, such as wine and beer, are made using yeast. However, few are aware that insulin comes from genetically modified yeast and that jeans are ‘stone-washed’ using enzymes that moulds produce in large, sealed vats – in bioreactors that have a capacity of hundreds of thousands of litres. Any technologist with an interest in bioeconomy as well as decision-makers should have at least a basic understanding of the nature of modern biotechnology and its immense potential in terms of new products.

Industrial biotechnology concerns the use of living organisms in industrial production. The industry is developing at an extremely rapid rate, and it is founded on the latest scientific findings. Yeasts and moulds certainly do not need to bow down to anyone in the world of technology. Yeast research received the Nobel Prize in 2001, and the release of the baker’s yeast genome in 1996 marked the first time that the complete set of genetic material of an organism with a human-like cell structure (eukaryotic) was sequenced. The genomes of hundreds of different moulds have now also been sequenced, and researchers are currently combing through these to find the best candidates for genes that could, for example, produce enzymes for making biofuels from straw or wood waste.

The latest scientific achievements include the first fully synthetic chromosome of baker’s yeast, which scientists managed to produce in 2014. The rapid rate of development in this field of science is epitomised by the fact that scientists plan to replace the entire yeast genome, all 16 chromosomes, with human-designed synthetic DNA by 2018. This will give us the first ever synthetic eukaryotic organism: Saccharomyces cerevisiae 2.0.

Synthetic biology is set to revolutionise biotechnological potential in the near future

Synthetic biology gives us the tools to design and produce biological structures and living cells that do not exist in nature. Researchers can choose which properties they want to have in a production organism,  then design a new genetic code on that basis using a computer, and send the data to a company that can synthesise the genes, or DNA, in a test tube. Numerous strands of this kind of synthetic DNA can be incorporated quickly and accurately into the production microbe’s genetic material. Synthetic genes are activated and passed on to subsequent generations.

It takes just a couple of weeks to find the most suitable candidates from among thousands of different kinds of synthetic cells. The cells can be examined with the help of mathematical models and digitised, and synthetic DNA and organisms can be produced by means of automation and robotics. These tools make the process of building new, increasingly efficient production organisms and those that produce new compounds considerably faster. Businesses and research teams that have access to synthetic biology tools are ahead of the game in terms of developing and patenting new innovations.

Many countries, including EU Member States, see industrial biotechnology as one of the most important future technologies, especially thanks to the boost from synthetic biology. Industrial biotechnology enables the development of sustainable solutions for a wide variety of industrial sectors, such as the energy , chemical, pharmaceutical and forest industry.

Microbes can be made to turn organic waste into the same products that are currently derived from oil, and many petrochemicals can be replaced by compounds produced naturally by microbes. Synthetic biology makes possible fast development  of microbes into super-efficient producers and those that are well suited for industrial processes. Biological properties can be transferred from one species to another in a controlled manner, and completely new kinds of functions can be designed and living cells programmed to manifest them.

Making way for visionary business ideas

Synthetic biology excites mathematicians, chemists and physicists, and inspires students and young entrepreneurs. Amazingly little use has been made of the versatile functionality and specificity of biology in industrial production so far.

The time has now come for a biotechnological revolution, and completely new kinds of business ideas, including some wild ones, are expected within just a few years.  The first and most important area where innovations are needed, however, is bioeconomy: producing chemicals, fuels and materials from renewable resources.

Fungi to diversify Finland’s industrial sector

Finland has been a pioneer in the industrial application of biotechnology and its most important production organisms – yeasts and moulds – as well as in developing modern biotechnological techniques. Finnish researchers are able to make yeast produce biofuel butanol, mould to secrete human antibodies, and yeast to produce lactic acid, which can be polymerised into bioplastics. These kinds of multifaceted research and development projects have been possible largely thanks to interest from foreign companies.

Biotechnology, and fungi developed by means of synthetic biology, could also open up new opportunities in the industrial production of highly sought-after added-value products in Finland, and diversify Finland’s industrial sector.

The Living Factories programme, which is funded by Tekes and coordinated by VTT, strives to lower the threshold of Finnish industry to adopt biotechnological production processes. The project has already shown that synthetic biology (e.g. the genome editing technique CRISPR) can significantly speed up the development of production organisms and lower development costs.

Biotechnology is one of the most rapidly developing technologies at the moment, and it is among the top priorities of most countries’ technology strategies. Modern biotechnology also combines the success factors that are important to Finland: cutting-edge- expertise and the use of renewable raw materials.

Merja Penttilä

Research Professor 


Circular economy complements bioeconomy

Ali Harlin_edit

Combining the circular with the bioeconomy creates a whole greater than the sum of its parts.  Recycling is the key to ensuring sufficient biomass. Biomass provides us with a source of renewable raw materials in place of those based on our dwindling fossil resources.  

The objective of the bioeconomy is conversion to the use of renewable raw materials. The pay off will be seen in greater sustainability due to a smaller carbon footprint, or even carbon neutrality. However, there is concern about how to ensure that the related raw material streams are sufficient and suitable to replace fossil materials such as synthetic polymers. On the other hand, we could increase the overall amount of fibre materials by recycling wood pulp.

Recycling is traditionally associated with solving the waste problem. However, the core of the circular economy lies in using the molecule economy, which minimises the use of virgin atoms, to solve the problem of insufficient raw materials. But we also need to bear in mind that, due to wear, no material can be recycled endlessly.

The amount of cellulose pulp manufactured is around the same as that of synthetic polymers: around 240 million tonnes of wood pulp and a total of 350 million tonnes of various fossil polymers are produced each year. Wood pulp is recycled up to 3–4 times before its fibre length reduces to an unusable size. This means that the recycling of wood pulp markedly increases the amount of fibre material in use in comparison to fossil-based, polymer materials.

Recycling can reduce raw material costs

The fact that biomaterials are 20–50% more expensive is often mentioned as an obstacle to their commercialisation. These costs can be lowered through recycling, as in sectors such as the printed media and packaging industry. By using recycled materials, a manufacturer can avoid the costs associated with the fractionation of virgin materials.

The cumulative value creation of biomaterials is highly front-loaded compared to alternatives such as oil-based materials. Biomass is harvested and transported in consignments as dry goods, which are up to twice as expensive to process as liquid oil. In addition, the use of virgin biomaterials as raw materials creates side streams, which are not generated by recycled materials. This means that recycled materials need to be made more competitive compared to synthetic solutions.

Regulation aimed at increasing the use of, say, biofuels or the transport of biowaste to dumps promotes the inception of new recycling projects. Biofuel can even be made from the lowest-quality biomass. This can be achieved using either a thermal or biotechnology-based technique, although particularly large-scale industrial processes are required for the thermal approach. The fact that liquid fuel has much less added value than materials and, in particular, the products made from such materials provides good grounds for recycling and reusing biomaterials to the maximum.

Towards self-sufficiency in raw materials

Recycled materials would also improve the raw material self-sufficiency of industry in a world in which the prices and availability of virgin raw materials are variable. Greater recycling efficiency will create opportunities for new players and businesses. For example, in Finland alone the recycling of textiles, particularly cotton, would be equivalent to a reduction of3.5 billion kilos in carbon dioxide emissions. The Texjäte project by the Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE) demonstrates that, while re-use is more efficient than recycling, a combination of both is unbeatable.

 Ali Harlin

Research Professor

Bio-packaging of food – How does it contribute to saving the world?


What are your connotations of food packaging? A means of safeguarding the passage of food through the manufacturing and transport processes and an opportunity to reduce society’s dependence on fossil fuels, or unnecessary packaging and great heaps of waste?

A confectionary package is a classic example of wastefulness. Confections are set individually and sparsely in indentations of a plastic tray. After this, a protective plate produced from corrugated board, either plastic or cardboard, is placed on top of this tray. The plastic tray and protective plate are placed in a carton, and, to top it off, this whole thing is wrapped in cellophane or clear plastic film. Wasteful packaging? Most certainly. Materials produced from fossil fuels? Also true.

The basic function of packaging is artless and thus easily forgotten. The vitally important role of a package is to protect the food while it is transported from producer to consumer. The first priority of packaging is to protect food from contamination, mechanical impact and other environmental effects throughout the production, processing, transportation stages and trading all the way to the consumer’s home. Packaging provides information on the content and use of food. It also significantly extends shelf-life by preventing the access of microbes or reducing the amount of oxygen or moisture that is able to penetrate the food in question.

Sufficient but not excessive environmentally friendly packaging that preserves resources and nature is not a novel idea. Nor are efforts to rationalise packaging. Since 1970, the humble yoghurt container has lost 50 per cent of its weight. Even the aluminium tin has become 20 per cent lighter.[1] The confectionary box could be simplified by, for instance, leaving out the separate protective plate and replacing the plastic tray with a carton grate.

Towards bio-packaging

Bio-packaging is a short step away from environmentally friendly packaging. Bio-packaging is an elemental part of the transition to the so-called bio-economy. In a bio-economy, the world’s operations are based entirely on renewable biological resources, meaning that food, animal feed, energy and materials are produced by using biomass and biological processes. After the Industrial Revolution, the bio-economy is a step back towards nature and renewable material sources, yet it is powered by new technology.

The largest group of bio-packages comprises good old cartons and corrugated boxes and other fibre-based food packaging products such as paper bags, moulded pulp products (e.g. egg cartons) and textile bags. Fibre-based packaging entails low carbon dioxide emissions, since bioenergy and biomass such as recycled fibre and wood are used in their manufacture and the packages are recyclable. As much as 99 per cent of all cardboard and corrugated materials collected in Finland are recycled[2]. Best of all, fibre-based materials are very strong and tough in comparison to their density.

From plastic to bioplastic

Plastic is used a lot for food packaging due to its excellent properties. Plastics are tough, light, relatively impenetrable and transparent. Traditionally, plastics are manufactured by synthesis of petrochemicals. Oil-based plastic is so durable that, in practical terms, it does not degrade in nature; it just gets cut into smaller pieces, which accumulate in the oceans, in the stomachs of fish and birds, and in landfills. Accordingly, plastic food packaging has an image problem among consumers.

Nature also produces polymers that can be processed into plastics. These are called bioplastics. Basically, all biological macro-molecules are suitable for producing bioplastics, but they are still most commonly produced from starch, sugars and cellulose. Bioplastic comprises only one per cent[3] of all the manufactured plastic, but its share is rapidly increasing. Well-known examples include the bioPET bottles by Coca Cola and Pepsi, and milk-cartons’ bioplastic tops, manufactured from a sugar cane-based material. Depending on the manufacturing technology, bioplastics can differ a great deal, somewhat or not at all from traditional plastics. The greatest challenges are related to arranging the recycling of bioplastics alongside traditional plastics. VTT is currently developing a manufacturing process for expanded polystyrene using PLA bioplastic (polylactide).

The challenges of the bio-economy, and strides forward

An orange has the ideal nature-made packaging: its peel. The peel is so tough that it allows the orange to be transported across great distances without damage or any significant need to discard damaged fruit. Using the same logic, a package can be grown near to a food’s production site. This is one of the key ideas of bio-packaging. In the future, the side and waste streams from agriculture and forestry can be processed into packaging near to food production and processing sites, which will allow long-distance transports to be avoided, while providing local employment and enabling the utilisation of material streams.

VTT is about to start an international project on this theme commissioned by the Food and agriculture organization of the UN (FAO). The idea is to analyse food waste, packaging material and by-product streams of a chosen food supply chain, and formulate solutions for ‘greening’ the chain through bio-packaging materials and operations. Also national projects with several partners are being planned.

The greatest challenge to a bio-economy using biomass is that so-called black carbon cannot be replaced to the same extent with green carbon. Environmental tolerance, biodiversity and the sheer amount of biomass will not allow for attempts to replace consumption at the current level with biomass-based energy and materials. Nature does not produce all the materials desired or needed by humankind in the required amounts – or even at all. For this reason, technical methods are being developed so as to create synthetic organisms that can handle this production on an industrial scale. This rising industry is called synthetic biology, and it continues the traditions of genetic engineering and biotechnology. However, synthetic biology does not resolve the basic issue, which is a need that is too great compared to the possibilities. Biomass will not be enough to cover everything unless consumption is reduced.

In order to achieve a genuinely sustainable bioeconomy, our inevitable future prospects include more localised lives, reduced consumption, and a more efficient use of resources in a number of ways. In the future, renewable resources such as biomass will be used more efficiently, but unrestricted use is not a possibility. The consumer is, therefore, well within her rights in demanding that the confectionary package should be simpler.

Sara Paunonen

Senior Scientist

Read Sara Paunonen’s previous blog post: Food waste is a sheer waste of resources


[1] Pardos Marketing, Market trends and developments in packaging, EMAP, Brussels, 2001.

[2] The Environmental Register of Packaging PYR Ltd, Recycling statistics for packaging, 2012.

[3] The European Bioplastics, http://en.european-bioplastics.org/

Hail the new golden age of wood

Ali Harlin_edit

When using wood, our forefathers were looking for the perfectly shaped branch for a handle, while spool manufacturers look for wood that is free from knots, paper manufacturers for long fibres and modern, greenhouse emission-conscious engineers are interested in biocarbon. As needs change, we can again look at trees in new ways.

Science can help us understand the structure of wood in greater depth, while technology can translate science into economic success.

Revenue from logging reserve

We have enough sustainable logging reserve to stack a six-meter high pile of logs and trunks along the tracks from Helsinki Railway Station all the way to Kemijärvi station in Lapland. In terms of firewood, the value of this pile equals a stack of 50 Euro banknotes large enough to fill the gaps between the fourteen columns of the Finnish Parliament building. But if we turn the logging residue into value-added materials, the stack could cover the entire building!

By manufacturing textiles that replace cotton, we could free up enough fields to feed 30 million people and prevent the formation of a few deserts the size of Finland.

Fibrils or crystals from cellulose walls

Identifying the cellulose cell wall structure has brought about many significant advances. In the past decade, the nano-view has revealed the fibril level of wood. Fibrils are cable-like strings that form the cellulose cell walls. While this structure was already known, the interest in the manufacture of nano-materials has driven technological development to a point where it is possible to release fibrils with reasonable energy consumption.

Fibrils allow the manufacture of completely new kinds of products and additives, such as plastic-like fine paper or very fine textile-like paper yarn. Even in small amounts, fibrils make plastics harder and more robust. Other uses include preventing paint or juice from separating, and improving the composition of concrete.

The nano-sized crystals in the fibre walls can be released by etching cellulose in a controlled manner. Capable of self-assembly, the crystals can form new materials. They scatter light and form colours. Crystalline materials can be used to improve the insulation properties and strength of different mixtures.

Recyclable textiles from wood

The swelling and dissolution of cellulose is another example of advances in green chemistry. Advanced enzymes have provided the key to a very exact method of destructuring cell walls. What is more, the advances of ionic and eutectic solvents provide a very effective and environmentally friendly way of solvating cellulose. We should consider the use of wood as a material in textile manufacturing. With the new cellulose solvents, it is possible to manufacture 100% recyclable textiles, for example.

Controlled swelling of the cell wall is an effective way of introducing chemicals into and modifying the structure. By bonding acetic acid to the cellulose structure, it is possible to create a thermoplastic material, or cellulose-based plastic. Other chemicals can improve the water-solubility of cellulose, or make cellulose more inclined to bond with other materials, enabling the use of cellulose in place of oil-based auxiliary polymers.

Converting cell walls into sugar

A third example is the use of enzymes to convert the cell wall into sugars, to produce, say, alcohol to power vehicles, without taking resources from food production. The sugars in wood allow the manufacture of molecules with a much higher value. One example is FDCA, or furandicarboxylic acid, which can be used to replace the aromatic oil-based main component in packaging and polyesters. This will also produce plastics that are stronger and have lower gas permeability than the plastics used today.

From forestry to bioeconomy and circular economy

Our forestry sector cannot be sustained by pure volume alone. New processes provide economic methods of refining wood into completely new kinds of high-value-add products. At the same time, there will be a shift in economic structures. We are moving from forestry to bioeconomy. In this context, bioeconomy refers to maximum utilisation of biomaterials in terms of utilisation rate and value. At the same time, our behaviour as consumers may shift towards a circular economy, reducing our footprint to a more sustainable level.

Investing opportunities in the new economy have created vast profits for many, but at the same time, a lot of capital remains tied to old industry, providing shrinking returns. Some companies are starting to see the light, and after a long period of non-investment have announced new investments. As Ensio Miettinen, Ensto company (Finnish company for electrical systems and supplies), founder put it:

“Today, we possess more knowledge and capital than ever before, but we need to have a firmer belief in the future.”

Utilising new technologies is always risky, but there will be no gain without risks. It is time to move onwards and upwards to a sustainable future!


Ali Harlin

Reasearch Professor