The average person probably doesn’t spend too much time pondering what every object around them is made of. Even environmentally conscious consumers might underestimate how ubiquitous fossil-based chemicals are in our homes, our offices—our entire lives.
How often do you think about the glue used in your wooden furniture, for example? Even when you do your best to make all the environmentally responsible choices for yourself, unsustainably produced materials sneak in, like that glue in your plywood furniture, or the ingredients in your sunscreen. None of us can avoid the asphalt roads that criss-cross our planet, not to mention all the in-your-face plastic products we see and use every day.
It all adds up to a painfully deep environmental footprint, and there are no easy fixes. But there are companies working on solutions that, with a little bit of boldness and more action from regulators and industry players, can begin to redefine entire value chains. One company is Estonia’s Fibenol, offering renewable products with a minimal environmental footprint to move the world towards a bio-based circular economy.
Waste not, want not
Built on almost two decades of wood-processing expertise, Fibenol creates sustainable biomaterials from hardwood chips. Sounds simple enough on the face of it, and the “why” is no mystery: On average, bio-based products emit 45% less greenhouse gases than the fossil materials they replace, says research published in Nature Communications.
The “how” is more complex.
Fibenol’s technology converts wood chips into C5 sugars, C6 sugars, and lignin LIGNOVA™ that can be used to substitute fossil-based products. Fibenol’s unique process ensures that over 90% of biomass used in this process becomes valuable material. That’s roughly double the efficiency of other processes that aim to valorise wood residue.
Completed in 2023, the company’s demo plant in Estonia uses sustainably sourced, locally generated wood industry residue, like sawdust, woodchips, and low-quality stem wood. The plant uses minimal energy, water, and processing chemicals, and (naturally) runs 100% on renewable energy, including that 10% left over from production.
The resulting materials have countless uses, but the most obvious one being the bitumen in asphalt mixes, says Fibenol’s Head of Marketing Liisa Rohila. The easiest way to understand the environmental impact of something tends to be its CO2 footprint, so Rohila explains that even if only 25% of the bitumen in asphalt mix was replaced with Fibenol’s lignin, it would make that asphalt carbon-neutral. And that’s not a fun little hypothetical—Fibenol constructed a carbon-neutral road around their plant using this method.
While asphalt is an example of the simplest application, there are plenty of everyday use cases that can be transformed with biomaterials. Wood sugars can be used in soaps and cleaning products. Plywood, a widely used wood product, is glued together with phenol-based adhesives. With alternative glues based on Fibenol’s lignin, plywood products—which probably make up a lot of the tables and cupboards in your home—can become 100% bio-based. Even the plastic component in your car can easily be made more sustainably with lignin-based components. And while we may not want to think about how many fossil-based chemicals we put on our bodies in our cosmetics, Fibenol’s lignin can become the basis for things like our sunscreen.
“Most products contain a certain amount of fossil-based chemicals,” Rohila concludes. “In the future, bio-based components can replace them.”
Not just a local factory — a global technology company
With the building phase of their one-of-a-kind demo plant finalised, Fibenol is on to optimising production. By 2025 the plant is expected to be producing 24/7, once technical aspects are fully adjusted for efficiency. Simultaneously, the company is looking into different locations, primarily in the Baltic states to start the planning of their next industrial-size plant with up to ten times the capacity of the current plant.
The Fibenol demo plant can produce 6,500 tonnes of lignin and 20,000 tonnes of wood sugars per year. That’s a drop in the ocean, in terms of the sheer scale of global material production, but even though the plan is to ramp up production significantly, simply making more materials was never the end goal.
As the owner of the intellectual property of their unique technology, Fibenol plans to enable their technology to be used globally, providing their know-how to spread the production of these extremely versatile materials at scale. “Estonia has a really long history of wood processing,” Rohila says. “What are the processes? What can be done with different parts of the wood? We do have quite a lot of that know-how. Basically, we’re starting a new era. The forest industry in general is making a step towards the future in the big picture.”
The sustainable materials are here—now we need the world to use them
If only making a lasting difference were as “easy” as developing a groundbreaking new technology for producing sustainable biomaterials. But those materials need to make their way from the forest floor into actual products. “Our goal is to find partners to collaborate with that are ready to boost the industry,” Rohila says. “We’re looking for bold corporations and industry players who are ready to develop a new value chain and be partners. The most important thing right now is to change existing industry models, but that means that traditional industry needs to make investments and make the shift.”
“What also needs to happen is that regulations need to start moving, pushing the chemical and material industry to move towards different kinds of bio-based materials,” Rohila adds. “Not only Fibenol, because we can’t fix everything—you can’t solve every problem with woody biomass! But sustainable materials will run the world in the next 10 years.”