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Sustainable, third-generation biorefining

Chempolis has developed the Formico™ family of processes for biorefining non-wood and non-food raw materials, such as straw, grass, bagasse, and leaf fibre. Thanks to the use of a new type of biosolvent, the processes overcome the problems normally encountered by other technologies – and will enable high-quality pulp, biochemicals, and biofuels to be produced from these resources economically, efficiently, and sustainably.

Paper in all its forms is an essential part of our daily life today, and looks set to continue being so. While forecasts point to a steady growth in consumption, particularly in the world’s developing economies, forest resources – currently the main source of fibre for papermaking – are diminishing all the time.

Straw, bagasse, and reeds – to name just a few materials – are readily and cheaply available worldwide, however, and offer an ideal papermaking resource, in theory. More than 5 billion tonnes of agricultural residues alone are generated annually, which is more than 10 times the amount of wood used annually by the pulp and paper industry.

The main drawback of papermaking based on these materials so far, however, has been the serious environmental problems associated with conventional alkaline pulping.

Overcoming old problems

Developed specifically for non-wood raw materials, Chempolis’ Formico™Fib process overcomes these issues, and offers a sustainable technology for producing high-quality fibre for paper and board, packaging, and hygiene products.

The strength and runnability of the pulp produced by Formico™Fib technology from agricultural residues is perfect for modern papermaking and results in product with superior optical, printing, and mechanical properties.

The Formico™Fib process offers a better chemistry than current technologies, is simpler, and also requires a smaller chemical and raw water input. This makes for highly cost-effective operations. As the process helps preserve forest resources and does not generate net carbon dioxide emissions, it is also very environmentally sustainable.

Formic acid is used as the key chemical in the biosolvent used in Formico™ processes. This biosolvent creates an acidic environment that prevents silicates from dissolving, and makes it possible to completely recover chemicals, dissolved solids, and water. Recovered dissolved solids can be combusted, generating sufficient energy to cover the needs of the process.

This makes it virtually self-sufficient in terms of pulping chemicals and energy, and eliminates carbon dioxide and sulphur emissions.

A new generation of clean biofuels

Building on the underlying expertise and process chemistry that led to its original non-wood pulping application, Chempolis has extended its technology with the Formico™Bio process for producing bioethanol from non-food raw materials.

This also bypasses the main problems that typically hamper other technologies being developed for these materials. As a highly sustainable approach, it opens up new potential for producing next-generation biofuel in a way that is environmentally responsible and cost-effective at one and the same time.

The need for this type of technology is growing all the time, as we deplete oil resources and identify more aspects of the threat posed by greenhouse gases and global warming.

Bioethanol can be produced with the help of Chempolis technology.

To avoid creating new problems by using food crops as raw material – and possibly contributing to higher food prices and food shortages – non-food feedstocks, such as agricultural residues and dedicated energy crops cultivated on marginal land, are the only long-term way forward. The potential quantities of these feedstocks are also more than sufficient to completely replace oil as a raw material for liquid fuels.

Biochemicals complete the jigsaw

The third member of the Formico™ family – alongside Formico™Fib and Formico™Bio – is the Formico™Chem process.

This can be used to produce biofuels and commodity chemicals such as acetic acid and furfural. In addition to being the main component of vinegar, acetic acid is used as a raw material in producing paints, adhesives, and plastics; while furfural, a trace compound found in brandy and bread, is used industrially as a solvent and a raw material for resins.

Because the Formico™ family of processes enable the co-production of multiple products, such as pulp, biofuels, and biochemicals, they represent a true third-generation biorefining solution.

The key features of the Formico™ processes have been recognised by the International Finance Corporation (IFC), dedicated to promoting sustainable private-sector development in developing countries on behalf of the World Bank, and the US Department of Energy.

Chempolis recently granted a licence to one of the world’s leading companies for the industrial production of pulp and biochemicals – and Formico™ technologies are now well on their way to being commercialised globally at industrial scale.

Formic acid – a metabolic product of ants – is a key pulping chemical used in Chempolis’ technology. The acidic environment this produces makes it far simpler to recover chemicals, dissolved solids, and water.
> Esa Rousu
(Published in HighTech Finland 2008)