Based on decomposition, this method is traditionally used to re-purpose municipal waste and commercial and industrial biowaste. Pulp industry sludge has traditionally been viewed as too difficult to process due to its lignin content, which is difficult to break down, and its problematic nutrient balance. EcoEnergy SF solved these problems by launching a research and development project which is still ongoing.
"We were already running R&D projects in the mid-1990s; in the early 2000s, we conducted an extensive Tekes project related to the heat drying of pulp sludge. The world was not ready for our innovation, and it was put on the back burner to await its time. The value of sludge was not understood back then," says Tero Mäki, CEO of EcoEnergy SF.
The world has now changed, with circular economy being introduced to municipalities and businesses aiming for resource efficiency. When Metsä Fibre began designing "the world's most modern and efficient pulp mill," it aimed to implement the newest environmental protection and resource and energy efficiency technologies.
"Sludge has traditionally been disposed of by burning on location. While this is one way of getting rid of it, we wanted to maximise the benefits sludge could offer," says Niklas von Weymarn, Vice-President, Research of Metsä Fibre.
"A gargantuan investment"
After its completion, the Äänekoski biogas plant of EcoEnergy SF will use pulp mill sludge to generate two end products. Biogas refined for use as vehicle fuel will initially be used for industrial purposes and in local traffic in the Äänekoski industrial and economic area. On the other hand, a letter of intent has been signed with Gasum for the wider use of the fuel. The other end product, solid pellet biofuel, can be used to replace fossil fuels, such as oil and coal, which are used in kilns.
Tailoring a biogas plant to process pulp sludge was "a gargantuan investment" for an SME, says Chairman of the Board Mika Laine of Envor Protech, a technology supplier behind EcoEnergy SF. EUR 4 million will be invested in the R&D project, half of which is an unsecured Tekes loan for product development and piloting.
As this is the world's first biogas plant to be located adjacent to a pulp plant, optimisation of the process required a huge number of practice calculations and test runs with sludges imported from various pulp mills to Envor Protech's test plants.
"We spent a long time seeking the optimal process, cost-efficient preprocessing methods and device solutions. We are now 110% positive that we are using the best solutions," says a confident Mäki.
Cooperation with the anchor company
Without a larger company to lean on, the project would never have been completed this time either. Metsä Fibre and Envor Protech found each other in the summer of 2014, after Metsä Group published plans to begin designing a bioproduct plant and announced a search for partners.
"Metsä Fibre's participation in our R&D efforts was hugely important. I doubt that we would have had faith in the process if we had not known that successful development would be rewarded with a valuable project," Mäki says.
According to Niklas von Weymarn, larger anchor companies play a key role in the bioeconomy and circular economy projects in particular. They enable SMEs to operate as part of the ecosystem. The ecosystem of the Äänekoski bioproduct plant already includes eight partner companies.
"Metsä Fibre is focusing on the things we are good at. Demand for new products and circular economy is growing, and our partners add to the overall offering," says von Weymarn.
The third contributor behind the EcoEnergy SF's project is Tekes, whose participation in funding in 2015 provided the R&D project with the scope required by the forest industry.
"The bioproduct plant set the project schedule and Tekes funding enabled us to keep to it. Without funding, the project might have failed."
Business worth hundreds of millions
The pilot plant to be erected in Äänekoski represents a major new opening for technology supplier Envor Protech, since it will serve as a distinguished reference in the future. The company has already entered preliminary negotiations on forthcoming projects.
Tero Mäki believes that Finland has the potential for four or five similar plants in the near future, while the international potential is many times that. While the value of a single biogas plant is some EUR 15 million, this translates into a market of hundreds of millions of euros.
"As the first player in this niche, we need to seize the moment," concludes Tero Mäki.
CEO, EcoEnergy SF Oy
tero.maki (at) ecoenergy-sf.fi
tel. +358 400 789 831
Niklas von Weymarn
Vice President, Research, Metsä Fibre Oy
niklas.vonweymarn (at) metsagroup.com
tel. +358 40 547 6977
Text: Jarno Forssell, Pohjoisranta Burson-Marsteller Oy