Almost a quarter of the dry mass of each tree is lignin, which is separated in the pulp production process and traditionally used as bioenergy through incineration. New, innovative uses of lignin, however, offer an effective way of reducing environmental impacts of different industries and dependency on fossil materials.
UPM is a pioneer in decades-long research on the utilisation of lignin, in resins, adhesives, bioplastics and polyurethanes, for example.
Since autumn 2017, lignin has been used as part of the WISA BioBond gluing technology in UPM Plywood’s production. As of today, lignin can replace approximately two thirds of the phenol typically used in the adhesive – and the target is to further increase this proportion.
Mother nature’s complex gift
“Mother Nature has designed this material—its structure and the way it reacts—in a very complex way,” says Christian Hübsch, Director, Lignin Business, at UPM Biochemicals.
“In ten years, lignin-based phenolic resins will be the new normal on a global level. The phenolic resin industry alone can absorb close to one million tonnes of lignin,” describes Christian Hübsch.
The core of UPM’s lignin expertise lies in the capability to provide customer-specific solutions for a variety of lignin applications. The same solution or quality does not work for all applications.
“We don’t just sell a powder, but also the knowledge about how it can be used. We collaborate a lot with our customers, so they can master the product quickly and easily,” says Suvi Pietarinen, Lignin Business Development Manager at UPM Biochemicals.
UPM BioPiva™ lignin and the resin technology related to its use are supplied to many of the biggest resin producers worldwide, for example to Prefere Resins in Europe, one of the frontrunners for lignin-based plywood-adhesives.
Prefere Resins’ Vice President of Technology, Dr. Michael Schwab, has been involved in lignin research for approximately 20 years.
“I’ve witnessed many attempts to commercialise lignin. Now it’s finally happening on a larger scale. We at Prefere value our collaboration with UPM Biochemicals, because the role of lignin in resins will inevitably grow, especially in building and construction. Our role in the value chain is to bring the components of the resins together and create the end product itself,” Schwab explains.
Sparring for top quality
Close collaboration with plywood quality leaders UPM Plywood has set extremely demanding quality requirements for lignin solutions. The first trials were conducted in 2013.
“We set very strict criteria for success from the start. The quality of the end products must be at least equally good as before in every way,” describes Mika Kekki, Vice President of Production & Operations at UPM Plywood.
WISA BioBond is currently used at two UPM Plywood mills and is being rolled out to other mills gradually.
Sanna Valkonen (left) and Suvi Pietarinen are enthusiastic advocates of lignin technology.
“The development work has not always been straightforward. Nonetheless, we have always felt that lignin has great potential and UPM has the means to actualise it. This feeling has grown stronger in recent years amid the rising debate on the use of fossil raw materials and climate. Being a part of the change gives us a lot of drive to continue research,” says Suvi Pietarinen.
UPM Biochemicals is confident that the use of lignin will in the long run become mainstream in a range of industries and applications.
Text: Saara Töyssy
Photography: Janne Lehtinen; UPM, Courtesy of the interviewee