Pine branching into new industries

 5 minute read

Pine trees have been used as material for building, paper and as an energy source through burning. The development of new technologies has, however, enabled a decrease in the carbon footprint of pine products and makes them essential for a circular economy. These discoveries enable pine to be used in entirely new industries, in this way, providing biodegradable options for synthetic materials and making sure no parts are wasted.

Dissolving pulp into
new products

Using coniferous trees to make pulp instead of burning them for energy would increase the value of foresting industry, and even more so when this pulp is processed further into substances such as nanocellulose and long fibres for fabrics. Nanocellulose is one material that can be derived from pine wood pulp. It is stronger than synthetic strengthening fibres but also very light in weight. Compared to its weight, it is stronger than any type of steel. Futurologist Risto Linturi explains: “The tensile strength of crystallized nano pulp is ten times that of steel, but so far we are not able to manage the technology required. What we can do is make nano pulp based on fibres, and it can be used to increase the tensile strength of, say, cardboard by tens of percentages.”

Being made from wood, nanocellulose is a renewable material and biodegradable after its use. Due to its promising features, commercial products are being developed especially in central Europe, Japan and North America. Due to the long and expensive process of deriving nanocellulose, the development of new applications has been difficult. However, the University of Eastern Finland developed a new production method in 2018 that significantly cuts down both costs and time of production. Now in 2019, nanocellulose can be used to clean waste water. It can be charged positively or negatively to attract and collect metal and sulphate ions out of water. Ideally, these particles can later be freed and recycled appropriately.

Fibres made from dissolving pulp are also used for creating textiles such as viscose. Viscose is soft, has consistent quality and is more modifiable than other textile materials. Its productivity is 20% higher than for cotton and polyester, and its waste percentage is 10% lower than for cotton. Spinnova is a Finnish company that produces yarn from wood fibres. Its production consumes 99% less water and 80% less energy than cotton. By using this technology, the annual use of wood in Finland would be enough to overtake the entire world’s cotton production. Spinnova’s process uses no harmful chemicals, and the consumption of energy or water is far lower than in the production of viscose. It is especially important to invent new fabrics instead of cotton as the land that cotton is planted on is needed for food production. While the land needed for farming will decrease by 18% from 2010 to 2050, the demand for food will in turn rise by 85%.

Structural and health support

Crude tall oil or CTO is a co-product of the pulping process done for paper production. When molecules from CTO are separated with distillation, the product can be used in new ways. These separated molecules can be used for instance in improving the grip of car tyres, road marking products, lipstick and chewing gum. CTO is not, however, a new invention as such. The first tall oil refineries in Finland were established already in the 1910s. Today, new CTO products are continuously being developed by companies with long histories in CTO research, such as Forchem and Arizona Chemical, because CTO based products have a significantly lower carbon footprint than products derived from other crops or fossil raw materials.

In addition to creating new products and materials, a CTO based product can be used to recycle asphalt. This innovation allows for up to 75% of the old road material to be reused without compromising road quality. This opportunity to recycle the material both saves natural resources and lowers the production costs.

The Finnish animal feed company, Suomen Rehu, uses tall oil rosin in its poultry feeds. This pine derived CTO product has been found to have anti-inflammatory effects when it is consumed. By using feeds with this natural remedy, farmers can reduce the use of antibiotics in poultry farming, which leads to better quality produce.

Natural glue that is used
as fuel and plastic

Lignin is a natural glue-like substance that attaches pulp fibres to each other. It is used primarily to make pyrolysis oil that is used as fuel for ships and thermal power plants. But it is also a raw material for textiles, plastics and biodegradable resin. Thermoplast is a lignin-based replacement for plastic but has a strong smell that is still too expensive to be removed which makes the use less popular. Due to its natural stickiness, it is used as a natural glue for wood materials. The construction industry can also use lignin to prevent concrete and asphalt from setting before they are cast. As a downside, lignin fibres branch out in the boiling of pulp which decreases the strength of carbon fibres that are needed for these novel uses. However, as Kalle Ekman from Stora Enso says, “You really can make almost anything out of lignin, but it’s another thing whether the production is feasible on an industrial scale and which products will be economically viable in the end.”

Insight Box

Forest products like pine wood will need to be used in new ways in the future to ensure sustainability and a circular economy. The technologies already invented are expensive and slow but should become more efficient in the future. Pine will not only be used differently in the future, but its foresting will also change. Satellite-controlled robots will plant, debranch, fertilise and selectively log trees. Younger generations should keep researching new ways to utilise this coniferous tree.

#circular economy #innovation #sustainability
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