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Story | 10/05/2021 08:57:03 | 5 min Read time

Sustainability and innovation motivate researchers

Innovation and research and development programmes are essential for the development of new products and technologies. Employees at the UPM Lappeenranta Biofore Base research centrecollaborate with many organisations to pioneer the development of bio-based materials.

“I enjoy change and creating something new. Here we are making something that hasn’t been done or tested before”, says Biofore Base researcher Jaana Käkölä.

UPM’s world-class Biofore Base research centres combine research, piloting and analytics to unite UPM’s technologies and globally-accumulated experience, develop the company’s growth ventures and to support existing businesses.

UPM’s Biofore Base research centres accelerate development of bio-based products – Lappeenranta research centre as a frontrunner already for 60 years

The centre’s main areas of research are biochemicals, biofuels, pulp, biomedicals and fibre-based packaging materials. The target is to further accelerate the commercialisation of bio-based solutions as viable industrial processes in a cost-efficient way.

Innovation in action

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Responsibility in industrial and consumer products 

Many Biofore Base employees are motivated by an interest in sustainability issues and the prospect of replacing fossil-based materials with bio-based alternatives.  Jaana Käkölä, who studies pulp and biofuels, is part of a new team focusing on various polymers and molecular bioproducts. She is interested in researching new bio-based products because of their potential environmental impact and the use of renewable energy.

Designing for a sustainable future

“I am motivated by the development of products and processes that are better for the environment. It is also fascinating to be working with something completely new, and there is still much to be solved. For example, we are the only company in the world to produce renewable diesel made of crude tall oil that is suitable for all diesel engines”, Käkölä notes.

Leena Kunnas feels the same way about responsibility. She leads a product development support team at Biofore Base and develops packaging and label papers, as well as related research methods. Consumers have increasingly demonstrated significant interest in recyclable and bio-based packaging materials, such as UPM Specialty Papers’ barrier paper products, which are a sustainable alternative to plastic packaging. They create a barrier against moisture and grease to protect the product inside the package.

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Barrier papers offer a much needed alternative to plastic

“Replacing single-use plastics with these products is an opportunity to support sustainability. I want to think about and develop responsibility issues in my work in the future as well”, Kunnas says.

Global cooperation across sectors

The Käkölä and Kunnas teams work together as well as with others from different backgrounds.

“We can always learn something new from skilled colleagues and other experts, and together we can solve challenges that we may not be able to answer alone. We develop processes and testing methods together, and if they work, everyone is happy”, Käkölä says.

Cooperation with businesses and their product development managers is also important. The experts’ work involves extensive collaboration with different production sites and research centres around the world. The UPM group has research centres in China, Germany and Finland, and various businesses have their own facilities. The teams also cooperate closely with chemical and machine suppliers, as well as with customers, universities and research institutes. Additionally, Käkölä and her team sometimes develops processes or analytics with start-up companies.

When a new product is launched, it is always the result of a long multi-stage process. That’s why the launch is always a really big and important moment for us.

Developing new methods by applying old insights

As part of her work, Jaana Käkölä supports UPM’s pulp and biofuels businesses with chemical analytics and develops new related research methods. In the case of biofuels, she analyses the chemical composition and properties of new raw materials and products. Pulp research, on the other hand, focuses on developing sustainable wood-based fibre materials. The work requires a solid basic competence in chemistry and creative problem-solving abilities. 

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Because the teams work with completely new products and processes, the required analytical techniques are often unavailable. This means they must first develop the necessary methods before studying the chemical composition of new raw materials. The information obtained is used in the development of new products, as well as for quality control and manufacturing processes. When the exact composition of a product is known, it is possible to design it from the development stage to ensure it is as well suited as possible to recycling.

However, it’s not always necessary to start from a clean slate.

“Usually there is already some method that can be modified. Even when a new methods needs to be developed from scratch, there is some equipment that can be adapted for use”, Käkölä says.

Leena Kunnas’ team develops completely new specialty paper products in close cooperation with the business. The team also improves the features of existing paper products.

“When a new product is launched, it is always the result of a long multi-stage process. That’s why the launch is always a really big and important moment for us”, Kunnas says.

 

Text: Armi Kauppila