The development of bio-based chemicals and products is a prerequisite for sustainable development in business and society. Using renewable raw materials – waste – is an important part of this process. With a reliable access to biomass, Swedish infrastructure is well developed for this. Such conditions give Swedish industry a good opportunity to meet increased demand for sustainable products and chemicals.
Intensive research and development is currently ongoing at companies, research institutes and universities. One example is ‘Närodlad Plast,’ or ‘locally produced plastic,’ a project aiming to produce industrial bio-polyethylene from Swedish forest products. By taking advantage of forestry residues and by leveraging technical possibilities, companies want to create a value chain that stretches all the way from the forest to finished products such as plastic bags or screw tops for milk cartons.
“SEKAB is managing the ‘locally produced plastic’ project. One prerequisite is that we have the entire value chain – the forest industry, process industry, chemical industry and the companies that produce plastic packaging. Then there are consumers asking for bio-plastic products and packaging,” notes Ylwa Alwarsdotter, responsible for Strategic Market Development at SEKAB in Örnsköldsvik.
“The technology for producing plastic already exists but almost all of the production of bio-polyethylene takes place in Brazil with sugarcane as feedstock. There is currently no industrial production of bio-polyethylene from raw timber. If we could do it we would be unique. It would create jobs in Sweden and reduce climate impact,” continues Alwarsdotter.
“Today, large parts of the chemical industry depend on organic compounds produced from fossil raw materials – coal, oil and natural gas. The traditional chemical industry is dependent on commodities that affect climate and environment and are likely to become more expensive,” says Roger Sellgren, Vice President Chemistry at SEKAB. “The use of green chemicals is therefore an important step in reducing the chemical industry’s environmental impact. SEKAB is the only chemical company in Europe that can offer green chemicals produced from fossil raw materials with green energy.”
“SEKAB produces ethanol derivatives, or products made from ethanol. We import biologically produced and sustainable ethanol and processes to produce new raw materials in demand by the chemical industry. All chemicals that are produced from oil can instead be made of ethanol.”
Acetaldehyde and other chemicals from bioethanol
“We supply acetaldehyde from biologically produced ethanol. Acetaldehyde is a very important raw material in the manufacture of a wide range of chemical products, including paint binder in alkyd paints, softening agents for plastics, fire retardants and explosives. When it comes to climate change, carbon dioxide emissions from the production of the green acetaldehyde is 0.75 kg per kg product which is significantly lower than fossil-produced acetaldehyde,” continues Sellgren.
“The product’s climate characteristics are particularly important for some customers. SEKAB offers acetaldehyde that is made of second-generation ethanol. This means that the raw materials come from residual forest products such as firewood and wood chips. Combine this with our production process which utilizes renewable bio-energy and the climate benefits become obvious,” says Sellgren.
“In addition to acetaldehyde, we produce ethyl acetate, 99-percent ethanol and acetic acid. Among organic solvents, ethyl acetate is considered to be one of the least environmentally damaging. It is very effective and at the same time it breaks down easily in both air and water. For customers with high environmental standards, SEKAB can deliver ‘green ethyl acetate’ made from biologically produced ethanol. It is produced in a process powered by renewable bioenergy and therefore provides a product with very low emissions of climate-changing carbon dioxide.”
“We are working with catalytic processes where the raw material reacts with very high efficiency. Our main by-product is actually plain water. The acetaldehyde and acetic acid production lines are equipped with advanced gas purification, where the degree of purification is higher than 99 percent. The outgoing process water is treated in an anaerobic (oxygen-free) water purification process that is very effective. After treatment, the water is as pure as natural water.”
A century-old tradition
For more than a century, sulfite has been manufactured in Sweden from ethanol by-products from the pulp and paper industry. Today, Aditya Domsjö in Örnsköldsvik is the only remaining factory in Sweden. This ‘second-generation ethanol’ is a byproduct of turning cellulose into a viscose material. The first generation ethanol is produced from agricultural products such as sugar cane, cereals or corn. Second-generation ethanol has several advantages:
-Climate change is lower compared to fossil raw materials and additionally lower compared with first-generation bioethanol.
-The raw material does not compete with food production and is based on byproducts.
“Making ethanol from wood is in our marrow. The leap to bioplastics is not very far. ‘Locally grown plastic’ is very much a reality. This is where the CelluApp® concept comes in,” he adds.
“CelluApp® makes it possible to process almost all forms of biomass into eco-friendly, high quality and marketable chemical products, biogas and lignin. In the so-called bio-refinery industrial cluster outside Örnsköldsvik, we have, with intensive research and continuous test runs of our pilot plant, refined a technique to exploit the value of residues from forestry and agriculture. Today, we have a number of patents in everything from anaerobic digestion of biogas to the separation of lignin and pretreatment of raw material. We are on the forefront of international research,” concludes Sellgren.
A demo plant (Biorefinery Demo Plant) is located in close proximity to SEKAB’s production facility in Örnsköldsvik. The development of CelluApp® technology covers everything from raw materials, chemical and biological processes, to control and regulation technology for integration with other production means. For SEKAB, ‘locally produced plastics’ create conditions for scaling up the CelluApp® technology from a demo platform into a commercial project based on forest resources.
This article was published in March 2015