Stora Enso, which develops and produces solutions based on wood and biomass for a range of industries and applications worldwide, is investing EUR 10 million to build a pilot facility for producing bio-based carbon materials based on lignin. Lauri Lehtonen, Head of Innovation, Stora Enso, Biomaterials Division, talks about this investment, bio-based carbon materials and the company’s future targets in an interview given to Paper Mart.
Here are some excerpts from the interview.
Paper Mart: What prompted you to invest EUR 10 million in building a pilot facility for producing bio-based carbon materials based on lignin?
Lauri Lehtonen: We at Stora Enso believe that everything that is made of fossil-based materials can be made of wood tomorrow. This pilot facility is yet another proof point of our innovation work. With the pilot facility we are building on our long-term work in extracting lignin from biomass and creating more value out of it. With the support of the pilot facility, we will be able to explore new markets, new customers, new products and new processes for the company. We see a rapidly growing battery market especially due to growing e-mobility (electric cars, buses, bikes, etc.) with companies looking for high-quality, attractively priced, and sustainable materials.
PM: Can you tell us about lignin and how it can be used for producing bio-based carbon materials?
LL: Lignin is one of the main building blocks of a tree. It acts as the glue holding the tree together and contains a considerable amount of elemental carbon and aromatic carbons in particular, which are needed to form high-grade carbon materials. Lignin makes up 20-30% of the composition of wood. The process of carbonizing biomass consists of several heat and mechanical treatments during which the lignin is formed into a technical carbon material. By converting lignin into so-called hard carbon anode materials for Lithium-ion batteries, we can offer a product that can replace fossil-based anodes (mainly synthetic graphite) currently used in batteries.
PM: What are the unique advantages of using wood-based carbon?
LL: Lignin is the second largest macromolecule in nature after cellulose. It exists in all plants and contributes up to 1/3 of the composition of wood. There are many varieties of lignin which vary according to the extraction process. It is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ product, as different types of lignin vary considerably in performance. The lignin produced at Stora Enso’s Sunila Mill will be carbonized to be used as an alternative to graphite. The demand for Lithium-ion battery products is constantly growing. We believe that using a renewable raw material that is abundantly available – i.e. wood – is crucial to finding more sustainable and affordable alternatives to fossil-based or mined materials of limited supply.
PM: What benefits will bio-based carbon materials bring for industries around the world?
LL: Our product, bio-based hard carbon anode electrode material, will feed as a component into Lithium-ion batteries, with battery producers mainly located in China. By converting lignin into so-called hard carbon anode materials for Lithium-ion batteries, we can offer battery producers a product that can replace fossil-based, scarce and high-cost materials currently used in batteries with high-quality, attractively priced and sustainable alternatives.
PM: What has been the role of your R&D team in producing bio-based carbon materials based on lignin?
LL: Stora Enso addresses resource scarcity and works on technology development and commercialization of bio-based chemical intermediates and by-products of the wood industry. We have been focused on lignin’s potential for several years. The R&D team in Stora Enso’s Biomaterials Division has been driving this opportunity from idea conception and lab work into this stage over the past years.
PM: Stora Enso has been producing lignin industrially at its Sunila Mill in Finland since 2015. Can you tell us a little bit about Sunila Mill?
LL: Sunila Mill is part of Stora Enso’s Division Biomaterials which has operations in Finland, Sweden, Brazil, Uruguay and US. The mill is situated by the Baltic Sea in Kotka, Finland, some 130 km east of Helsinki. The mill, which was designed by Alvar Aalto, the world-famous architect, was started in 1938. The mill produces bleached sulphate softwood kraft pulp, lignin, tall oil and turpentine, using high-quality softwood (pine and spruce) as raw material. The mill employs some 250 employees. Having the pilot facility for producing bio-based energy storage materials at the same mill site with lignin production brings opportunities for good co-operation in the value chain and for tailoring the raw material for carbon for energy storage according to customer demand.
PM: What are Stora Enso’s future targets?
LL: Global warming is one of the biggest challenges of our time. There is an increasing demand for raw material that is renewable, recyclable and fossil-free. By replacing fossil-based materials with Stora Enso’s renewable solutions, we will help drive the transition from a fossil fuel-consuming world to a sustainable future based on the bioeconomy.
Stora Enso is transforming from a traditional paper and board producer to a renewable materials growth company. We will continue to invest in attractive segments and concentrate on offering innovative products and services to our customers. With renewable, recyclable, and fossil-free wood fibers as our foundation, we have an important role to play in the bioeconomy. In 2018, 9% of our sales came from new products and services. Our long-term target is that 15% of our sales must come from new products and services.
In addition to innovating in pulp products, Stora Enso’s Biomaterials Division consistently develops a strong business portfolio for regenerated cellulose and MFC as well as for lignin and bio-based chemicals.