From pulp mill to bioproduct mill

An overview of the bioproduct mill in Äänekoski, Finland. Photo: Metsä Group.

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Even a pulp and paper technician may sometimes be a bit philosophical about what has happened recently.

When writing this piece I decided to dwell a bit on a new term which I came across during last year; bioproduct mill instead of pulp mill. Why is that an interesting and relevant term?

With only four months as substitute teacher in the subjects Swedish and history for pupils 13-15 years, and I myself 19 years, it might sound a bit over the top to write a kind of philosophical text about words. But I'll give it a go anyhow.

The Swedish and Finnish forest industry is right now investing quite substantially in board capacity, and even more in pulp capacity. Södra Cell has expanded the Värö pulp mill from 425,000 tonnes to a capacity of 700,000 tonnes of bleached softwood pulp. SCA Forest Products invests in Östrand to increase the capacity to 900,000 tonnes of bleached softwood pulp. In both these cases the mills will be practically new as almost only the recovery boilers in the previous mills will remain as they have enough capacity for the much higher production levels.

The bioproduct mill in Äänekoski

In Finland UPM is expanding the capacity in Kuusankoski from 530 000 tonnes to 870 000 tonnes of bleached softwood and hardwood pulps. Metsä Fibre invests in Äänekoski approximately EUR 1.2 billion in the new bioproduct mill, which is the largest investment within the Finnish forest industry. The bioproduct mill's annual pulp production will be approximately 1.3 million tonnes, out of which 800,000 tonnes will be softwood pulp and 500,000 tonnes hardwood pulp. The Finnish company Boreal Bioref and the Chinese state-owned engineering company giant Sinomach's subsidiary Camce plan to build a pulp mill in Kemijärvi. The final decision will be made during 2017.

A couple of months ago I was working on articles about the Finnish forest industry when I for the first time came across the term bioproduct mill. It is the term used by Metsä Fibre when describing their giant investment in Äänekoski. The main products will of course be pulps for paper and board products, but due to the mill's size there will also be big side streams and residual materials to be turned into other products.

Lignin from Domsjö Fabriker in Sweden ready for shipment. Photo: Domsjö Fabriker
A bioproduct mill in an ecosystem

I find it a clever way of describing the Äänekoski mill not as a pulp mill but as a bioproduct mill in an industrial ecosystem, as it also reflects the idea that gradually also other products than pulps will be produced, naturally of vital importance to the mill's competitiveness. By also describing the new mill site as an industrial ecosystem it shows that existing, and future companies to be established on the site, will all act in symbiosis, depending on each other.

All side streams from the bioproduct mill are planned to be utilised in the ecosystem that will be formed by various companies around the mill. The bioproduct mill will create a diverse ecosystem of bioeconomy companies that will develop and produce the bioproducts of the future from wood raw materials. This ecosystem will be beneficial not only to the region, but also Finland as a whole. In addition to pulp it will produce bioproducts such as tall oil, turpentine, lignin products, electricity and wood fuel. Potential new products created from production side streams include product gas, sulphuric acid, textile fibres, biocomposites, fertilisers and biogas. There will be a bark gasification plant and the gas produced from the bark will replace the heavy fuel oil used in the lime kiln. The mill is designed to allow for a broad, diverse range of products manufactured by a unique bioeconomy ecosystem of companies.

Using the word ecosystem in this context is an interesting and new way of describing what previously would have been called a pulp mill, and nothing but that. The word biorefinery has been around since Borregaard in Norway and Domsjö Fabriker in Sweden for good reasons started to use this term. Since than quite a few mills have labelled themselves biorefineries. However, by using the terms bioproduct mill and ecosystem for an industrial activity like the one in Äänekoski indicates a new way of thinking. Big modern mills will "not only be" pulp mills but bioproduct mills producing an array of products based on renewable forest raw material

Hans Henrik Øvrebø, researcher at Borregaard in Norway, demonstrates microfibrillated cellulose produced in their recently opened MFC plant.

The power of words is strong

In act 2 of Shakespeare's Hamlet he answers Polonius with the famous line; Words, words, words. Without analysing too deeply, one can definitely state that choosing the right word or words is important as the choice reflects the idea and purpose with the subject in question.

One example is a quote from one of the investors buying the Domsjö sulphite mill from MoDo in 1999. "MoDo sold a pulp mill but we bought a biorefinery". The parties viewed the same process equipment and buildings with totally different eyes. To MoDo it was a pulp mill and a wood sourcing problem, but to the group of investors it was a biorefinery to be - which it successfully also turned out to be. By strongly communicating Domsjö as a biorefinery and act accordingly, internally as well as externally, the doomed pulp mill was turned into a successful biorefinery.

The power of words is strong, provided that the words are backed by strong commitments in terms of investments, research, process development and a sustainable industrial activity. That is why I like the fact that Metsä Fibre in wording has gone from a pulp mill to a bioproduct mill in Äänekoski. The name Äänekoski is in English "The Sound Rapids" and may the sound of the words bioproduct mill and ecosystem in this context be successfully spread as they excellently describe a modern pulp mill and its future opportunities.