Story | 01/23/2019 10:22:33

UPM BrDC pilot facility: 10 years chasing dreams

A whiff of pine-scented mystery surrounds the UPM Biorefinery Development Centre (BrDC). The exact coordinates of the pilot centre are still not that well known, even to those who work in the Kaukas mill area in Lappeenranta, Finland. The secrecy in itself is easy to explain: the pilot facility’s birth can be traced to the development of the UPM BioVerno diesel fuel. UPM BioVerno, distilled from tall oil, and the process that went into its development and production was understandably kept under very tight wraps. In its 10 years of operation the pilot facility has strengthened its position as an essential driver of innovation. At the moment it plays a key role in establishing UPM’s foothold in the chemical industry.

BrDC is part of the UPM North European Research Centre (Lappeenranta Research Centre), which employs about 150 people. Pilot projects are handled by a 16-person team of inventive, dedicated employees, headed by Timo Westerholm. His job description includes managerial responsibilities, covering safety, project management and future policies.

“A tree can bend in all sorts of directions. It is something we witness here every day. At BrDC, we are at the cutting edge of knowledge in this field, testing the latest products and applications. This makes our work extremely interesting. What guarantees our success is that we have good people working with us. Many have stayed with us these 10 years, and that says a lot,” says Westerholm.

Timo Westerholm makes sure that everything runs smoothly at UPM Biorefinery Development Centre in Lappeenranta. He takes care of workplace safety and helps prioritise tasks.

Pipes, valves and pumps

UPM BrDC is a separate construction of about 1,000 square metres in the Kaukas integrated mill  site. Every day any number of tests take place within its walls. Some of the experiments run independently while others require constant observation, vigilance and some degree of manual intervention to succeed. A lot of work on the premises uses chemicals and gases, so occupational safety is a priority.

“We have a wide range of devices which we modify and combine for testing on a case-by-case basis. For biofuels, we work with different reactors - in practice a lot of pipes, valves and pumps. Then there are tools for testing preparation methods and liquid-solid separation - we concoct different wood-based adhesives for test runs and, of course, pulp,” Westerholm describes.

The assignments come mainly from researchers. The initial meetings centre around safety and the practical implementation of the tests. BrDC's know-how is crucial when choosing equipment. About half of the assignments are created for biochemicals, while biofuels and pulp account equally for the rest of the workload. Of course, some assignments come from elsewhere in UPM. While UPM has research institutes in Germany and China, they do not have pilot facilities.

“Often the suggestion of what equipment to use and what methods to consider comes from us, although some researchers know our equipment so well that they can define the course of the experiment from start to finish. The experimenter must not lose hope if the first or second round does not bring the desired results. It may take 10 times to get there. When a test fails, it is still useful, since we know what not to replicate in the next test run,” says Westerholm.

Good tools are still only tools

The most expensive test equipment in the BrDC costs up to seven figures. However, price is not the main determinant of value in the facility. The most valuable tool in the BrDC arsenal is the growing skill of its employees. Jaakko Nousiainen, Production Director at UPM Biofuels, has been a part of BrDC's story since the division was made up of just three people working out of a transport container and studying how spruce branches react when soaked.

Jaakko Nousiainen, now Production Director at UPM Biofuels, has been a part of BrDC's story since the division was made up of just three people working out of a transport container and studying how spruce branches react when soaked.

“The best test device is a simple, robust and reliable tool that produces replicable results. It does not necessarily need to cost millions of euros. An instrument’s value comes from capturing phenomena with appropriate measurements and automation. It is essential to understand what the phenomenon is that we want to catch. How is it translated into a process? What is the best way to research it? Finding answers to these questions depend on having skilled staff,” says Nousiainen.

For example, the data to support the investment decision in UPM BioVerno was created with small scale equipment used in an innovative manner. “The concept was developed with a reactor with a diameter of 2cm. Commercial scale reactors are over 2 metres wide. From the outset, our process has been defined by letting operatives be independent and proactive. A spirit of happening, the desire for success and natural curiosity have characterised the work from the start – and it still holds true today,” says Nousiainen.

upm-pilodist2.jpgYou cannot reach reliable test results even with the best equipment if you do not understand what phenomenon you are trying to capture.

Keeping expertise in house

Meri Ventola is responsible for the design and development of processes and technology at UPM Biochemicals. The test runs on BrDC help Ventola and her team make the right choices.

“We test various technologies and manufacture materials for application development. Of course, we also conduct trial runs at external pilot and demo facilities in accordance with our strategy. However, having our own infrastructure offers unbeatable benefits, the most important of which is that it increases our own expertise because we do it ourselves. Employee competence and unremittingly persistent co-development bring a level of vision and objectivity that, at best, creates new cost-effective solutions and speeds up decision making. Perhaps most noteworthy is that knowledge provides the basis for identifying new areas where we can grow,” Ventola explains.

Having its own pilot plant helps a fast-developing company identify mistakes, and thus also succeed faster. It also creates opportunities to turn byways of research into routes towards new successful business.

Meri Ventola is responsible for the design and development of processes and technology at UPM Biochemicals. For her UPM BrDC is an example of brave leadership.

“We must have the desire and the ability to dream, and a place where we can go after the dreams. We also must be able to fail, often and early. If we do not have the ability, the desire and the space to dream, we will be forced to change. At UPM, we achieve together, and this requires all of us to renew with courage. BrDC is at the heart of these values,” concludes Nousiainen.

BrDC's success story is also an inspiring example of good decision-making at UPM. “It is a great story of courage, also in terms of corporate leadership. They were bold enough to trust the information provided by UPM BrDC. The success achieved of course makes it all the more impressive. The concrete support UPM BrDC provides is already amazing, and will be even more so as UPM continues to develop further,” says Meri Ventola.

Saara Töyssy

Main image: One of the most valuable tools in the BrDC arsenal is the growing skill of its employees. There has been very little staff turnover. The operators work independently and proactively.