Innovating recyclable products for a future beyond fossil fuels

Innovating recyclable products for a future beyond fossil fuels

UPM Biochemicals has embarked on a mission to transform the automotive and textile industries towards sustainability. The company is extending its product portfolio into biochemicals as part of its vision to create a future beyond fossil fuels. Its new €750 million facility under construction in Leuna, Germany, will convert sustainably sourced hardwood into two vital ingredients of industrial manufacture. Dr Michael Duetsch, VP Biochemicals at UPM, explains how UPM will help the vehicle and fashion industries become more sustainable and the company’s aims for the future. 

Firstly, tell me more about UPM Biochemicals and how it started?

UPM’s core competence – in sourcing and processing wood – is proven over 150 years. Now, the company is extending its product portfolio into new innovative businesses such as biochemicals, as part of our vision to create a “future beyond fossils” and to further increase the positive climate value of the forest biomass we use.

UPM Biochemicals is part of UPM The Biofore Company. Our wood-based biochemicals offer sustainable, competitive, high-quality renewable solutions for various industries and applications. As our biochemicals can be fully integrated into existing production and recycling processes, they are one key enabler for the transformation of the entire chemical value chain towards renewable circularity.

Following a ten-year R&D journey, our new €750 million facility under construction in Leuna, Germany, will convert sustainably sourced hardwood into two vital ingredients of industrial manufacture – bio-monoethylene glycol (BioMEG) and lignin-based renewable functional fillers (RFF). The total annual production capacity of the biorefinery will be 220,000 tonnes of biochemicals, enabling the vital shift away from fossil-based renewable materials across a wide range of industries, such as automotive, textiles and packaging. We also produce renewable naphtha, an excellent wood-based raw material for plastics, at our Lappeenranta biorefinery in Finland.
Our industrial-scale biorefinery at Leuna is a world-first, not only for UPM but for the biochemicals category. One hundred percent of the wood used to produce UPM renewable biochemicals in the UPM biorefinery is either FSC- or PEFC certified and taken from local forests where biodiversity and natural ecosystems are preserved. All our wood is fully traceable, controlled and covered by a verified third party chain of custody.

What does you customer base look like?

We are launching a new generation of biochemicals sourced from sustainably and responsibly managed forests that will enable brands to redefine their net zero targets and switch out of fossil-based chemical intermediates for good.

Our customers are organisations that urgently want to work towards a net zero circular economy and who benefit from the sustainability value our products offer. They include those in various end use industries, including packaging, automotive, consumer goods and textiles, as well as producers and manufacturers of rubbers, plastics, yarns and coolants, for example.

We are actively engaging with industry partners to develop new, sustainable applications and products based on the biochemicals to be produced in Leuna and Lappeenranta. It is only via open collaboration and active partnerships that we can jointly transform the chemical value chain towards more sustainability, to ensure a future beyond fossils.

How do the automotive and fashion industries rely heavily on fossil fuels?

Today, still more than 98% of carbon feedstock comes from fossil resources with a future demand of plastics expected to triple by 2050 to reach more than 1,100 Mt per year. One car has typically more than 30,000 parts, many of them made from fossil fuel-derived materials.

Climate change, raw material scarcity, regulatory pressure and consumer preferences for sustainable products are all critical drivers for the automotive industry as it moves to replace fossil-based materials with renewable products in its supply chain.

Building a climate neutral car requires innovation across the full spectrum, including the use of renewable energy, advancements in battery technology, increased utilisation of recycled materials and the adoption of green energy for charging vehicles. Even traditional fossil-based materials used in car parts, such as window seals and seat belts, need to be replaced with sustainable alternatives.

Looking at the fashion industry, approximately 60% of all materials used are made from fossil-based polymers (European Environment Agency, 2019). One of the issues that seriously affects the sustainability credentials of the industry is the manufacturing process of polyester – polyester is one of the world’s most popular textiles, and it is used in thousands of different consumer and industrial applications.

However, most polyester is made from fossil-based feedstock making the polyester manufacturing process fundamentally unsustainable and detrimental to the climate. It is also likely that the chemical industry’s existing and upcoming efforts are falling too short to stay within the planetary boundaries for fossil-based feedstocks.

UPM Biochemicals has embarked on a mission to change this and transform the automotive and textile industries towards sustainability.

How can these industries become more sustainable?

While the automotive industry has come a long way to build zero-emission vehicles, it must still address CO2 emissions throughout the cycle of the manufacturing process to meet strict net zero targets across fleets by 2050 set out by the European Union.

For this, automakers have already established strategic plans. One of the most ambitious ones, Polestar, aims to build the world’s first truly climate neutral car by as soon as 2030.

However, several vehicle manufacturers have expressed concerns that they cannot achieve this alone. The entire value chain, from automakers to suppliers of parts and raw materials, need to work in close collaboration to innovate, without compromising on technical or environmental performance.

Solid wood from sustainably managed forests is poised to revolutionise the manufacturing of rubber and plastic parts but also textiles and coolants, usually made from fossil materials.

One of the products from the biorefinery is a Renewable Functional Filler, which serves as an essential, sustainable component in various applications such as plastic interiors, bumpers or weatherstrips. The second main product will be renewable glycols (BioMEG), which help make automotive textiles, such as seat covers, seat belts and upholstery but also coolants more sustainable. A range of bio-based and CO2-optimised engine and battery coolants will soon be available. In addition, at the Lappeenranta biorefinery in Finland, UPM produces bio-naphtha, a drop-in solution that works identically to fossil-based naphtha in all chemical industry solutions and can be used in various end uses, including packaging, consumer goods, fibres and textiles.

This new generation of biofuels and biochemicals will not only significantly reduce the CO2 footprint of a vehicle but some also offer additional properties, for example, reduced weight, adding significant value to electric vehicle manufacturers.

But more work is needed to establish a shared vision for sustainable materials throughout the entire value chain. Each step needs to follow the same net zero logic and drive innovations at scale. Consumers, be it potential buyers of new vehicles or fleet managers who consider their next purchase, may soon begin to prioritise vehicles built with a lower CO2 footprint and with ingredients from the renewable carbon and circular economy.

With regards to the textile industry, UPM Biochemicals developed its new bio-monoethylene glycol, UPM BioPura, as a sustainable ingredient for the production of polyester fibres. In this way, UPM is introducing a way to enter the production of CO2 optimised polyester fibres. It is a renewable, drop-in solution that acts as a like-for-like replacement for fossil-based MEG. The advantages of which are: climate neutral feedstocks, easy to implement, broad range of applications, highest industrial standards and offers significant reduction of customer CO2 footprints.

The partnerships that UPM Biochemicals has established, as well as future partnerships it will develop, combined with the sheer scale of production, has the potential of shifting the mindset of the textile industry towards one of production using exclusively renewable materials and carbon-free production techniques.

Is there an openness within these industries to become more sustainable?

Industries across the board have been actively seeking sustainable alternatives due to the growing impact of climate change and rising prices of fossil resources and metals.
The automotive and fashion industries are no exception, as they strive to embrace a circular economy and replace fossil-based plastics and textiles with more sustainable alternatives.
Fortunately, years of research have yielded promising results, and innovation is evident in many supply chains.

Which other industries are impacting heavily on climate change and is this something you can also address?

Today, about 90% of the worldwide demand for carbon is met by fossil resources – crude oil, natural gas and coal. To transition to a future beyond fossils, we must reduce their use. Just as we have embarked on the decarbonisation of the energy sector, a transition to renewable carbon in the chemical and plastics industries is necessary, if we are to stop adding to the earth’s greenhouse gases. To achieve this, all the materials that we currently make out of fossil carbon, which is nearly everything nowadays from packaging to clothing and household goods, need to be replaced with something renewable and integrated into a circular economy.

We are teaming up with downstream partners in all major sectors to help achieve this. As well as the automotive and fashion industries, our biochemical products are a decisive steppingstone for the timely transformation of the packaging industry – from its high dependency on fossil-based materials to renewables.

A massive increase in demand for plastics is projected by The Nova Institute, tripling from about 400 million tonnes now to 1,200 million tonnes by 2050. Industries need to meet that demand in a more responsible way. Whereas recycled plastics are believed to make up to 750 million tonnes, bio-based chemicals have a vital role to play.

In a world beyond fossils, there will be only three sources of carbon: CO2 capture, recycled materials and biomass. Therefore, establishing a circular economy – reuse, and recycling – is hugely important and rightly a big focus for manufacturers. But this will not be sufficient – you will always have losses in a circular economy, and we will need to compensate for those losses with sustainable, non-fossil raw materials in order to create a perfect, circular low carbon economy.

We need to stop consuming new fossil feedstocks, but because they are the backbone of our chemical industry, we have a massive challenge ahead of us.

What are the aims of UPM for the next year?

2023 is a pivotal year for UPM Biochemicals. Our industrial scale biorefinery at Leuna is rapidly taking shape, in anticipation of production starting at the end of the year.

We have formed several commercial partnerships to develop eco-friendly products using our biochemicals that will transform the carbon footprint of value chains in different industries. For example, our bio-glycols are ready to be incorporated into products such as footwear, in partnership with Dongsung Chemical; automotive coolants, in partnership with HAERTOL Chemie; insulation material, in partnership with URSA; PETG, used in a variety of applications such as packaging, in partnership with Selenis; and wood-based polyester to be prototyped in a fleece jacket, in partnership with the German outdoor outfitter, VAUDE.

As the new biochemicals can be fully integrated into existing production and recycling processes, they enable the transformation of the entire chemical industry towards a renewable circular economy.

Transforming the chemical value chain to become more sustainable can only be achieved through collaboration and partnerships, and this will continue to be our focus for the coming year.

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