ValCel project made important progress towards understanding better the complex fundamentals behind modified cellulose materials

ValCel project made important progress towards understanding better the complex fundamentals behind modified cellulose materials

Projects 05.09.2023

The two-year Value for Cellulosics (ValCel) public research project carried out basic research on many topics related to producing renewable, sustainable, and value-added cellulose-based materials for various end use applications, such as textile fibres and cellulose derivatives. The Business Finland co-funded project was coordinated by VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland in close co-operation with University of Helsinki and University of Oulu. Key industrial partners of the project included Kemira, Metsä Fibre, Metsä Spring, Liuotin Group, Top Analytica, Pixact and BrightPlus.

To reflect on the ending of the ValCel project, its main outcomes, and potential next steps, ExpandFibre team had a chat with Mika Härkönen, Professor of Practice at VTT, as well as key industrial representatives of the ValCel consortium – Anna Suurnäkki, VP Research at Metsä Fibre and Jonni Ahlgren, Senior Principal Scientist at Kemira. During the project Mika acted as the coordinator and project leader at VTT, while Anna and Jonni were both part of the project’s steering group overseeing the overall progress of the work carried out, and both were also involved in the planning phase of the project.

Key learnings of the project

When discussing the key learnings of the project for the different project participants, Mika started by highlighting that ValCel was a different Business Finland co-innovation project in its nature, as it was focusing more on research and producing scientific peer-reviewed articles as its main outcomes, as well as generating new knowledge on the investigated pathways for increasing basic understanding on the complex phenomena behind modified cellulose materials.  Anna also wanted to express her appreciation towards Business Finland for allowing ValCel project to be more research oriented. Anna continued: “The public research part of co-innovation projects, and the knowledge created within the public research, is greatly supporting the R&D efforts within an industrial partner’s own parallel project.” Mika agreed that more research-oriented co-innovation projects can be beneficial and are very much needed also in the future.

Jonni agreed with Mika’s assessment and continued that overall expectations for the outcomes of the project were appropriately set to reflect on the fundamental research activities at the core of the project. Jonni also wanted to highlight one successful aspect of the project, as ValCel was able to include both DES (deep eutectic solvents) and ILs (ionic liquids) based research into the topic of cellulose activation – two currently competing technologies rarely researched and evaluated in the same project consortium.

Jonni continued that one of the key outcomes of the project was assessing different pulp types as starting points for cellulose modification processes – can common paper grade kraft pulp be used as raw material for cellulose activation, instead of the more specialised dissolving pulp grades, was one of the key observation points. From Kemira’s perspective, according to Jonne, the publicly funded core ValCel project was highly beneficial for Kemira’s own activities in their linked parallel company project. Jonni also briefly explained the importance of ValCel for Kemira: “Kemira’s key expertise lies in developing and manufacturing high quality and functional chemicals for its customers. Cellulose is among the key bio-based raw materials in Kemira’s portfolio – modifying cellulose and understanding the complex chemistry behind these processes is highly interesting for Kemira.”

Anna continued her insights into the learnings of the project by agreeing with Jonni’s assessment of ValCel public research project bringing strong synergy and benefit to industrial company’s own parallel project. The goal of Metsä Fibre in its ExpandFibre project is to develop future wood fibre-based bioproduct concepts. ValCel project fully supported this goal with its results and new insights of new chemistries as potential technologies for fibre modification and functionalisation.

All interviewees wanted to also remind on the importance of mistakes, and especially learning from mistakes during long research and development initiatives. Jonni explained: “During ValCel, we made mistakes, which were very educational, and most of all interesting. In general, it is also unrealistic to expect to not meet challenges and failures along the way towards such interesting results”. Anna continued: “It would be highly important to publish not only the successful, but also unsuccessful R&D results, both are very beneficial in and supporting the development path of new innovations.”

Next steps

To conclude on the reflections of the project, all three interviewees agreed that the collaboration during the two project years between the different research organizations and company partners, such as Metsä Fibre and Kemira, was excellent at best, which was strongly reflected in the interesting outcomes of the project. Perhaps understandably, not all collaboration during the project was free of challenges, as it was noted during the interview, that finding a common vision was at times rather challenging, as all project partners had their own dedicated goals, aspirations, and ideas on the themes of the project.

Jonni also wanted to highlight the role of work package leaders during the project: “The role of work package leaders, in a project such as ValCel, is elementary – it is highly important to question the progress of the action tasks also during the project, not just after the activities have been completed.”

What comes to the immediate future of the work carried out during ValCel, Mika mentioned that an application for an EU project is being prepared, that if accepted, would greatly help in taking the work of ValCel forward. Jonni concluded the discussion: ”Cellulose derivates, such as carboxymethyl cellulose, have a very long industrial history dating back to late 19th and early 20th centuries. Chemistries and technologies are developing at an ever-increasing pace, and it would be highly important to know if such products based on the modification of their cellulose backbone could be manufactured in better ways today – a topic that universities should also be very much interested in.”

You can also read about the results of ValCel project on VTT’s homepage.