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