The fossil-based economy can be replaced by a bioeconomy, where we utilize renewable biomass from forestry, agriculture and oceans instead. Everything that is made from oil can be derived from forest residue – and the solutions of the future are already growing.

The bioeconomy comprises those parts of the economy that use renewable biological resources from land and sea – from crops to algae and forest residue – instead of fossil-based fuels and materials.

Biomass accumulates coal and replaces oil

In Sweden, forestry is the natural base for the bioeconomy: the forests are an abundant and growing resource, responsibly cared for by a diversity of actors. The forests also act as a natural carbon sink that accumulates and stores atmospheric carbon dioxide. Taking both biosequestration and the climate benefit from replacing other raw materials into consideration, Swedish forestry saves 60-70 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually.

”The amount is comparable to the Swedish annual emission volume. When forest-based raw materials are used instead of others with more severe impact on the climate, we get a substitution effect”, says Johan Bergh, Professor in forestry and wood technology.

Refined and advanced products

Biofuels, bioplastics, cellulose-based fabrics instead of oil-based synthetic fibers; carbon chains from forest biomass are capable of replacing fossil carbon in every application. Photo: Preem.

In order to reduce carbon emissions, fossil resources are being replaced all over the world, growing the bioeconomy. In the process, new value chains and innovations are being developed. Wood construction is on the rise, even in skyscrapers, but forestry is becoming an important source of raw materials for fuels, fabrics, materials and products from the chemical industry as well.

Bio-based materials is not a new concept, of course. Wood construction, pulp and paper, fuels from oil crops and starch – the list goes on. The difference, compared to the fully developed bioeconomy of the future, lies in sustainability, efficiency and scale. The first generation of biofuels (such as corn ethanol), for instance, compete directly or indirectly for agricultural land with the food production. The next generation of biofuels are made from woody crops, agricultural or forest residues or waste, where the required fuel is harder to extract – but once we succeed, the economy becomes more circular, and waste turns into resources.

Take fiberboard, for example, which is heavily used in the furniture industry. The traditional way of manufacturing it is to use virgin wood and assemble it with fossil-based binding agents. One offspring of the many forest industrial innovation programs currently in development is a fiberboard concept where the woodchips are made from recycled wood and the binding agents are bio-based.

This example is representative for the trend. The manufacturing of materials, products, chemicals and fibres is becoming more circular, sustainable and energy efficient, increasingly in accordance with the natural carbon cycle.

Biomass can replace oil anywhere

In principle, renewable bio-based carbon chains can replace fossil-based carbon chains in every application. Anything that we derive from oil can be refined from cellulose instead. Vehicles can run on biofuels, and fabrics, plastics and substances can be made from biopolymers.

In Sweden today, the bioeconomy comprises seven percent of the GDP, and generates almost a quarter of the export of goods. The potential is much larger, and there is a lot of room to shift towards higher value-added products. In a couple of decades, forestry could increase its yield 25 percent through process development. There are also 10 million tonnes of forest residues such as branches, tops and un-merchantable wood that are currently left in the forest – a massive, untapped resource waiting to be harvested for innovative applications.

”Twenty years from now, 20 percent of the products may be new materials such as nano-cellulose and carbon fiber”, says Torgny Persson, Director of Research and Innovation at the Swedish Forest Industries. ”Sweden can build a new textile industry on forest-based materials. Functional fabrics for agricultural and industrial applications may be a reality in five years. Research and development is underway, and there are already prototypes.”

”The Swedish forest industry has the opportunity to play a key role in the bioeconomy’s global breakthrough”, according to Mats Kinnwall, Chief Economist at the Swedish Forest Industries Federation.

The world’s first fiber-based bottle for carbonated beverages

Green Fiber Bottle: a biodegradable fiber-based bottle for carbonated beverages, that decomposes completely after seven weeks. The bottle is made from Swedish paper fibre and could revolutionize the packaging industry. Photo: Exocpac.

One topical example of the bioeconomy’s emerging capabilities is the Green Fiber Bottle, a bottle cast with paper fiber from Swedish forests. Green Fiber Bottle is easily recycled, and can be decomposed completely after seven weeks. The manufacturing process emits less carbon dioxide compared to other bottles, too.

The bottle is developed in Denmark by the innovation company ExoXpac, in collaboration with Swedish BillerudKorsnäs. It is the world’s first fiber-based bottle for carbonated beverages, and expectations are high: to replace all the glass and plastic bottles, and open up completely new packaging opportunities for everything from cosmetics to cleaners. It is molded with 3D technology that can lead to new design possibilities.

As shown by the Green Fiber Bottle example, we are getting better and better at refining renewable biomass and residues into products. We still have one foot planted in the fossil economy, but we are taking a step into the bioeconomy – and the threshold of replacing oil is lower than ever before.

The article was published in October 2017.