Future of Nonwovens project explored future pathways for more sustainable biobased nonwovens

Future of Nonwovens project explored future pathways for more sustainable biobased nonwovens

Projects 03.06.2024

Nonwoven materials can be found in multiple everyday consumer products. Perhaps the most well-known examples are different personal care and hygiene products, such as baby wipes, daily used in millions of homes. It has been estimated that currently up to 80% of nonwovens are made from oil-based materials. Simultaneously, the constantly increasing environmental awareness of consumers and the Single-Use Plastic Directive by the EC have pushed the nonwoven industry to focus on the development of more sustainable solutions. The Future of Nonwovens (FoN) project established a unique Finnish cooperation between partners along the nonwovens value chain, envisioning that by 2030 over 50% of synthetic textile fibres are replaced with sustainable biobased materials in nonwovens in EU and the USA.

Joining the discussion on the FoN project were project coordinator Taina Kamppuri, Research Team Lead at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd, member of the project’s steering group Katariina Kemppainen, SVP, Group R&D, Metsä Spring, and Maija Rouhiainen, Director, R&D and Lab at Chempolis Ltd.

A unique consortium of Finnish actors along the nonwovens value chain

Joining VTT as the coordinator of FoN was a unique combination of highly specialised Finnish industrial partners along the nonwovens value chain, as explained by Taina: “Valmet Automation had a sizable parallel project to FoN focusing on online characterisation of nonwoven materials. Valmet Automation has traditionally been one of the global leaders in online characterisation of paper machines, so it makes sense to expand that knowhow towards nonwovens. Anpap is a Finnish forerunner in airlaid nonwovens technology and manufacturer of production lines for airlaid nonwovens. Suominen is a Finnish nonwovens manufacturer, who also had their own parallel project to FoN. Suominen can be considered a global pioneer in sustainable nonwovens focusing on cellulose-based raw materials. CH-Polymers, who also had their own parallel project to FoN, is developing and manufacturing binders for the nonwovens process with an increased biobased content. UPM RaumaCell develops and manufactures fluff pulp used as raw material for nonwovens. They were very supportive towards the project, offering the use of their pilot airlaid machinery for the FoN partners. Infinited Fibre wanted to assess the applicability of their circular textile fibre for the nonwovens industry.”

Katariina continued on the FoN partners and on the role of Metsä Spring in the project: ”Indeed, the FoN consortium was very unique in bringing together very compatible actors along the nonwovens value chain in Finland. We at Metsä Spring were naturally very interested in assessing the compatibility of our wood-based textile fibre Kuura® in various nonwoven applications. In general, we were very interested to learn more about the ongoing shift towards more biobased raw materials in nonwovens.”

Maija Rouhiainen briefly described the role of Chempolis in FoN: “Fortum Bio2X and Chempolis are working in close collaboration where Bio2X concentrates in product and business development and Chempolis is the owner of the biomass fractionation technology. This project offered for both of us an excellent possibilty to create new collaboration networks for new business areas.”      

Highlighting the seamless collaboration during the project

Taina reflected on the start of the project during the height of the COVID pandemic: “The project officially ended at the end of 2023, and we kicked off FoN in spring 2021 during peak COVID pandemic in Finland, when everyone was stuck at home participating in countless virtual Teams meetings. Looking back on the start of the project, virtual participation was perhaps one of the most challenging aspects. Once we were finally able to meet each other in face-to-face meetings in later stages of the project, I was really struggling to identify the people I had only met virtually before. Thankfully, these challenges did not hinder the actual progress of the project work, and excellent results were achieved.”

Taina continued on the collaboration: ”Overall, I’d say that collaboration during FoN was exemplary, with partners filling different roles very well and providing valuable knowhow for the consortium from various perspectives. Meetings arranged during the project were well prepared, and progress of the project was professionally monitored in advance to the annual reports to Business Finland. Comments that we at VTT received from the industrial partners were highly encouraging and information was freely exchanged  among the partners. Looking back, it’s a shame that we were able to schedule only a few face-to-face meetings and company visits, as those were always highly valuable experiences to share discussions and ideate between the partners.”

Katariina agreed and continued: “I also witnessed how valuable the organized company visits were. When you are in the presence of actual industrial machines producing the materials that you are developing, for example, it clearly enables the creation of completely new ideas and discussions between people, which I found fascinating.”

Katariina wanted to highlight few examples of successful collaboration: “Biobased binders, and the shift towards more biobased industrial chemicals, are very hot topics currently, so it was very interesting to participate in  the biobased binder development work during FoN. In addition, I also wanted to point out the work carried out during the project for the property space comparison between three different manufacturing technologies for nonwovens – airlaid, foam-laid, and wet-laid. This work was a successful example of basic research in which industry is steering the RTO performing the research work, and ultimately providing benefits for all participants. Finally, the perhaps high-flying conceptual work carried out for the future pathways of nonwovens was ultimately a very interesting deliverable from the project that will undoubtedly be a valuable tool guiding potential future pathways for these materials.”  

Taina continued to remark that Business Finland had thanked the project team especially on the future pathways document, a deliverable for one of the work packages of FoN. The deliverable detailed a future roadmap for nonwovens based on workshopping and ideation between the FoN partners: “The future pathways exercise was very valuable for me personally, providing key facilitation skills, as well as demonstrating how unconventional premises can lead to tangible and even concrete results.”

Main outcomes and learnings during the project

Taina wanted to highlight the key outcomes of the project: “The roadmap work detailing future pathways for nonwovens,  is certainly a key deliverable for the project. We are planning to publish the work, which is understandably not a readymade solution giving all the answers that the nonwovens industry needs to address but will hopefully be used as a tool to plan preparatory actions going forward. I did not personally anticipate this outcome at the planning stage, so it was a very positive surprise. Also, the biobased binders focused work carried out during FoN will undoubtedly be a key research topic at VTT after the project. I also want to point out the proof-of-concept work that we carried out on composite materials with the airlaid manufacturing process. Funding provided for the project enabled Sara Paunonen, Senior Scientist at VTT, to make a very fruitful research exchange at Nonwovens Innovation & Research Institute (NIRI) in Leeds, UK. For future R&D initiatives, especially EU- funded projects, it is vital to build up strong international relationships with key players in other countries.“

Maija reflected on the project outcomes from the perspective of Chempolis: “For us, the main achievement from FoN was the possibility to perform detailed application testing with our straw-based pulp. I believe this kind of testing with straw-based pulp has not been carried out by anyone before, which highlights the uniqueness of the  work. We will undoubtedly return to the experiences and results collected during FoN.”

Katariina continued on the significance of the project results from Metsä Spring’s viewpoint: “For us, one of the main aspects was to be a part of a particularly strong consortium for nonwovens, as we recognise the future potential of nonwovens as a market segment for Metsä Group. For us, it’s very important to be well connected with key actors from all parts of the value chain once our Kuura® textile fibre is commercialized.”

Taina concluded: “I still want to highlight the important work that was done with the property space comparison and online characterisation during FoN. We at VTT learned a lot about online characterisation of nonwovens and I want to make a special mention of Valmet’s successful parallel project on this specific topic. To conclude, it is also worth noting the successful piloting work carried out at UPM RaumaCell’s airlaid equipment, combining online characterisation, utilization of fluff pulp and biobased binders in the same piloting concept.”

Looking ahead to more a sustainable future of nonwovens 

After the successful FoN project, it’s not that surprising that continuation has already been carefully planned at VTT. Taina says: “We have developed a continuation of FoN with a new Business Finland co-innovation project entity, which  will be submitted during May, 2024. Another very exciting new development at VTT, perhaps partly influenced by FoN, is the significant €4 million investment towards new pilot-scale airlaid equipment, ensuring that research and development work towards more sustainable nonwovens continues also in the future.”

Katariina concluded on the next steps of Metsä Spring regarding nonwovens: ”At some point, we will definitely join new project initiatives within this topic. We are also continuously monitoring the latest developments in the field of nonwovens in general, and we’ll continue to further develop  the good relationships and networks built during the FoN project.”

Maija concluded: ”We at Chempolis were very interested in the project, and it was a key learning experience to follow the outcomes of the project. For me,  it was interesting to learn about the complexities of the nonwovens business in general, especially considering how seemingly simple everyday products they in most cases are. I think that the general forest-based biomaterial discussion is usually concentrating on traditional paper products or wood-based textile fibres, for example, but nonwovens are usually left out of the conversation, which is a shame. As a consumer, I’m often struggling to understand the raw material composition of nonwoven products and find it difficult to decide on the most appropriate method of recycling for these materials. I hope  that as the general awareness of nonwoven materials increases, also the research and development efforts of these widely used materials will undoubtedly grow, leading  to increased sustainability and circularity.”