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Estonia’s Fibenol is transforming the biomaterials industry

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If there is one thing that Estonia has a lot of, it’s wood. Over half of the country is forested, and timber is a key export. Forestry and wood industry leftovers are often underutilised, though, and one firm, Fibenol, is turning such secondary quality resources into high-value biomaterials.

Fibenol’s products include a hardwood extrusion-based lignin, an organic polymer that the firm has branded as Lignova, and that can be processed into biochemicals, coatings, adhesives, resins, and other materials. The company also offers lignocellulosic sugars, offered as C5 and C6 sugars, that can be used for fermentation into biofuels, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals, as a sustainable alternative for substituting agricultural sugars. Fibenol also makes special microcrystalline cellulose, a nano-material that can be used for barrier films and adhesives.

The firm developed initially within Graanul Invest, a major Estonian wood pellet producer, where there had been ongoing discussions on how to valorise woody biomass better, as the technologies used chiefly were able to turn 50 per cent of such biomass into products.

fibonol e-estonia

A year-long search led by Peep Pitk, its R&D manager at the time, wound up in late 2016 when Fibenol’s Sunburst technology was developed. At that time, Graanul Invest took the risk and scaled the technology. In 2018, the nascent firm, dubbed Fibenol, received EU funding to develop a demo plant. Its growth has continued since. As of today, Fibenol employs 50 people, and its plant in Imavere in central Estonia was commissioned in 2023 and is scaling up operations.

“This is a global innovation, enabling the transformation of the chemicals and materials industry,” said Pitk, now Fibenol’s chief development officer. “This is happening in Estonia. I think it’s a story worth telling, a story we should probably be a bit more loud about.”

Chocolate mousse, anyone?

Imavere is on the main highway from Tallinn to Tartu, Estonia’s second-largest city, and it’s a small village that is probably best known as a rest stop for travellers, because of its gas station. But it’s also a major wood production hub. Stora Enso, a Swedish-Finnish paper producer, maintains its sawmill there, the largest in the Baltics, and Granuul Invest is also located there.

This is where Fibenol built its biorefinery, which means that its primary input material, mainly plywood industry residues, is located within close distance. Pitk noted that about half of birch wood is turned into veneer sheets for plywood, while the remaining 50 per cent is often chipped and shipped to Scandinavia. But Fibenol can use that same residue to produce its biomaterials, meaning that the value of our bioresource remains in Estonia. “We can valorize locally also technological wood, the parts of the birch tree that are otherwise exported, and to keep the value here,” said Pitk. Fibenol can also process other species of hardwoods, meaning that the biorefinery model can be expanded globally.

These woody biomasses are converted into biomaterials via what Fibenol calls Sunburst technology. Using heat, pressure, and mechanical power, Fibenol can turn biomasses into a brown slurry that resembles chocolate mousse. It then relies on enzymatic processes to turn the wood sundae into lignin and wood sugars that can then be packaged and sold for use in a variety of industrial purposes.

“That’s where the magic happens,” said Pitk. “What we do today is a starting point for a model for integrated biorefinery.”

From fats and oils to carbon-neutral roads

There are innumerable use cases for Fibenol’s biomaterials. However, one early development partner has been ÄIO, a Tallinn-based food technology company that uses fermentation to produce fats and oils. According to Pitk, ÄIO has been using Fibenol’s sugars to feed its oil-producing microorganisms. “They use their yeasts to ferment the sugars into fat and oils,” Pitk commented.

Petri-Jaan Lahtvee, a cofounder of ÄIO said that the company has been using Fibenol’s C5 and C6 Sugars and has even developed a unique process for fermenting the C5 Sugars. Lahtvee said that ÄIO and Fibenol have been collaborators since Fibenol began producing batches of sugars. .”We were already waiting for their material before it existed,” said Lahtvee.

Hand with AIÖ product

Fibenol is also positioning its Lignova product as a replacement for fossil chemicals like bitumen, a viscous constituent of petroleum, which means it can produce asphalt and roofing materials. “Let’s say this is the lowest-hanging fruit for us,” said Pitk of this opportunity. Around the company’s plant, Fibenol created a carbon-neutral road this past summer with the help of a road construction company, which replaced 25 per cent of the bitumen with Lignova.

Fibenol also asked the company to use biodiesel instead of regular diesel, and according to TalTech experts’ calculations, this allowed the production of CO2-neutral asphalt. Pitk said this showcased the ability of Fibenol’s products to reduce the environmental impact of fossil resource-based industries.

“It’s not a matter of if we collectively can be more sustainable, it’s a matter of do we want to do it,” said Pitk. He said that producing a carbon-neutral road using Lignova would be about 10 per cent more expensive than surfacing a road using bitumen.

This is the question we are asking today from the local governments or authorities. EU-level solutions are there. “Sustainability, at least in the short term, comes with a price,” Pitk said. “I don’t think 10 per cent is too large an additional premium to make bitumen-based asphalts CO2 neutral,” he said. “I think this is an excellent demonstration of qualitative change.”

Fully digitalised

One of Fibenol’s goals is to develop a model for future biorefineries that can be exported worldwide. To accomplish this, the company integrated digital platforms into its processes at every stage. First, producing Fibenol’s products is designed to be resource and energy-efficient. For each ton of wood processed, Fibenol produces at least 950 kilograms of product, Pitk said.

The plant also relies on biomass-based energy and collects all the water used in the plant, which can be treated in an internal facility. Fibenol’s goal is to recycle at least 70 per cent of the wastewater. “Nobody has asked us to do that at the regulatory level, but we see this as the future, and in 15 years water, water use, and water scarcity will become more of a topic,” he said. “We are building a  biorefinery model for the future.”

Using digital tools via partners who provide it with woody biomass, Fibenol can also track the raw materials it uses.  The material is fully traceable because Fibenol uses woody biomass from certified forests. This allows it to calculate its CO2 footprint better and assess its environmental impact. Pitk noted that while general sustainability claims are popular, some companies claim to be green without providing transparent and traceable data.

“If we want to favour sustainable solutions, then we need to be able to compare the sustainability of different solutions,” said Pitk. “So this is the mindset that we’re advocating in the market. We need a levelled playing field to have a fair game.”

Ramping up

This year, Fibenol’s biorefinery in Imavere became fully operational, and the company plans to ramp up its production process next year. This includes feasibility testing and process optimisation. Beyond those goals, Fibenol intends to double production capacity by 2026.

By 2028, the company aims to have a large-scale plant ready, with approximately 10 times the capacity of its facility today. Due to the modular technology design, the biorefineries can easily be adapted to local limitations and resource availability.

“You have to look decades ahead and consider the sustainable forest management derived woody biomass availability,” remarked Pitk. “And biorefinery design basis needs to be aligned with the local availability of water and based solely on renewable energy,” he said. “You also need to contribute to the local community; you need to deliver the salaries that allow people to live their lives so that it’s all sustainable.”

Fibenol also has 2030 in its sights for different application developments. The company would like to produce 100 per cent forest-based biopolymers that Estonians can use instead of plastics. As Pitk noted, Estonia currently has products based on imported plastic, but by switching to Fibenol’s biopolymers, it could source all of those raw materials in the country. Pitk said that Fibenol’s aim is that by 2030, biopolymers will be produced entirely based on wood sourced from young forests.

“Instead of being importers of polymers, we can become biopolymers producers,” said Pitk. “These can be used here as well for export.”

 

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