Wood biorefinery major opportunity for Estonia

Timber - photo is illustrative.
Timber - photo is illustrative. Source: Margus Muld/ERR

Wood-based bioproducts can replace oil-based alternatives in the future, and Estonia has strong potential in the nascent field of biorefinery, the Riigikogu Foresight Center finds in a short report published on Sunday. The center describes biorefinery of wood as the green technology with the most potential in Estonia.

"The properties of wood-based bioproducts match or even exceed those of fossil alternatives. Biorefinery would eliminate the need to make chemicals out of oil and reduce environmental impact. For example, wood-based ethanol can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60 percent, compared to gasoline," Uku Varblane, head of the Riigikogu Foresight Center, said via a press release. He added that most products coming from the chemical, cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries are still based on oil today.

Biorefinery would help reduce waste and promote circular economy, turning 99 percent of raw material into useful products. Industrial waste could be used in heat and power cogeneration, reducing the environmental impact of waste removal.

Therefore, biorefinery would have strong economic potential for Estonia, both in terms of research and development and production, the Foresight Center finds in a brief report titled "Wood Biorefinery: Current Situation and Prospects." While biorefinery of timber helps utilize wood waste, it requires investments and enough raw material.

The report points out how Scandinavian countries have been betting on wood chemistry for decades, using rather more traditional pulp mills. Estonia's opportunity could lie in using synthetic biology to add value to wood, for example, by producing lignin and wood sugars. "These are innovative technologies which neighboring countries have not prioritized in their investments," Varblane suggested.

Unlike with several other green technologies, it would be possible for Estonia to not just develop the technology but also have production capacity.

The Foresight Center's report suggests Estonia's opportunity lies in opening pilot plants and turning cellulosic sugars into fine chemicals or manufacturing biomaterials. Estonia sports a high level of relevant research and development as it has several groups working on enzymatic decomposition of cellulose, with promising links to material science in the long run.

Experts suggest that the positive effect of biorefinery on Estonia's regional development could be considerable – in 2016, value added by a planned cellulose plant was estimated at 1.1-1.4 of GDP most of which would have been created outside the Tallinn metropolitan area.

The Riigikogu Foresight Center emphasizes that the environmental effect of biorefinery depends on the economy of forestry – maintaining the balance between use of biomass and forest ecosystems is key.

The brief report is part of the center's "Green Transition Trends and Scenarios in Estonia" research project.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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