Metsä Group’s Äänekoski Bioproduct Mill: At the Heart of the Bioeconomy

Paper 360° visited Metsä Group’s EUR 1.2 billion (US$1.4 billion) bioproduct mill in central Finland, which has been breaking all sorts of records when it comes to sustainability and environmental performance. Starting up seven minutes ahead of schedule in August 2017, it has also embarked upon an adventurous, innovative journey of making bioproducts other than pulp.

One thing that cannot be ignored when driving around Finland is the sheer number of trees—they are everywhere. In fact, 75 percent of the country is covered in forests, with only 7 percent of the land being used for other agriculture. So, if you are in the forest products industry, that means a lot of raw material—or to put it another way, a lot of renewable, sustainable, biomaterial.

The bioeconomy is a relatively new model for industry and the economy and it is really catching on as a concept in this part of the world. The European Commission defines bioeconomy as “the production of renewable biological resources and the conversion of these resources and waste streams into value added products, such as food, feed, bio-based products, and bioenergy.” Overall, the bioeconomy is worth EUR 2,300 billion (US$2,707 billion) in the EU alone, employing some 22 million people. Recently, the bioeconomy sector was given a boost with the budget for research into food and natural resources—the European bioeconomy cluster—doubling for the period 2021-27, to EUR 10 billion (US$11.65 billion).

Metsä Group’s Äänekoski bioproduct mill is already deriving 20 percent of its revenue from bioproducts other than pulp.

This means there is and will be an immense amount of R&D work being carried out at universities, institutions, and companies. Often working together, universities and research institutions such as VTT in Finland and RISE in Sweden are combining with manufacturing companies to find ways to sustainably produce products currently being made from fossil fuels, and to help ease the world’s plastics and pollution problems. Some real success stories are beginning to emerge, particularly in new ways to make textiles, biofuels, and biochemicals.

Metsä Group is one of those companies at the forefront of innovation in the industry in northern Europe. At TAPPI’s 2018 PaperCon, held in Charlotte, NC, Ismo Nousiainen, CEO of Metsä Fibre, informed the assembled delegates about the group’s strategy during the Executive Panel Discussion. “At Metsä Group we face the global trends head-on that are impacting consumption. We work on solutions directly associated with these megatrends—namely climate change, population growth, and aging populations. In the case of climate change, for instance, we are examining all of our processes and products, looking at ways to replace those with fossil fuels, in packaging for example,” he said.

“Added to this, in our own processes we are completely eliminating the use of fossil fuels—as in our latest start-up, the Äänekoski bioproduct mill—as well as looking at all sorts of other bioproducts that go along with the pulp mill.”

Metsä Group’s Äänekoski bioproduct mill has become something of a showcase for the industry, attracting interest from all over the globe. Ilkka Poikolainen, vice president of the bioproduct mill, says, “Since the start-up last August, the concept of the bioproduct mill has got a lot of attention, and we are receiving something like 20,000 visitors a year here, from customers to school groups to forest owners to international industry associations and representatives of government ministries. As mill manager, I have met more stakeholders from the industry than ever.

“At the core of the bioproduct mill is the world’s most efficient pulp mill as well as an increasing network of companies manufacturing various types of bioproducts from the side streams created,” he says. “There are a lot of different activities going on at the mill.”

The mill is now running at full capacity, producing around 1.3 million tpy of hardwood and softwood pulp.

The “world’s most efficient pulp mill” Poikolainen refers to is indeed impressive in its efficiency and environmental achievements. The mill is self-sufficient in energy to the tune of 240 percent (or 1.8 TWh in total). It exports the surplus to the Finnish national grid, providing 2.5 percent of the nation’s energy.

“Even better than that, this 2.5 percent is green energy from production sidestreams,” adds Poikolainen. “This bioproduct mill has increased the share of renewable energy in Finland by more than two percentage points.”

The bioproduct mill uses the very latest in technology for the pulp industry from the top suppliers. Poikolainen says, “Andritz and Valmet are our main equipment suppliers for the mill, and technology and equipment installed here was selected primarily on energy efficiency, low water consumption, and low emissions. We have already seen that the production balance between departments is at a good level, which tells us that the project team did a good job.”

Top equipment from Andritz included the latest technology for the woodyard and fiberline, including four of its new bark presses, the HQ-Press, for the higher dry solids. Andritz also supplied the softwood and hardwood swing fiberline, the latest in evaporation plant technology, and one of the world’s largest single-line recausticizing plants.

Valmet delivered the recovery boiler, pulp drying line, gasification plant, lime kiln, sulfuric acid plant, and mill-wide automation system—all of it the latest technology with a focus on high energy efficiency.

Other suppliers to the project included ABB for electrification, Pesmel for the mill’s latest in automated pulp warehousing, and Sulzer for pumps.

“It was very important for us that a good percentage of the technology and equipment we installed was from Finnish-based companies,” adds Poikolainen.

The mill was started up seven minutes ahead of schedule on August 15, 2017, and within budget. The start-up phase has progressed in line with the target curve.

Just over a year in, the mill is now running at full capacity, producing around 800,000 metric tpy of softwood pulp and 500,000 metric tpy of hardwood pulp for a total of 1.3 million metric tpy. Poikolainen says, “The mill is now running at full speed and I am proud to say that we achieved the mill’s nominal capacity in August, 2018. This makes Metsä Group the world’s largest producer of softwood market pulp. Our mill produced its millionth ton of pulp on August 8, 2018.”

The mill swings between hardwood and softwood production typically around one to two times per week. Poikolainen says, “Of course, to start with there was a lot of effort to find suitable parameters when making changes and switching from hardwood to softwood, but really, now, everything goes nice and smoothly.”

Metsä Group has embraced digitization at Äänekoski via the extensive automation of production with equipment comprehensively integrated into data networks. “We can monitor such aspects as vibration levels and the status of frequency transformers during operation, thereby forecasting potential malfunctions,” says Poikolainen. “This helps ensure that maintenance work is done promptly and precisely.”

New features at Äänekoski include tablet computers and a mobile application deployed to provide swift access to maintenance and condition monitoring—not only from the control room, but also from other locations. “This application enables malfunction reports and acknowledgements of completed maintenance work and can also be used for monitoring the production process remotely,” adds Poikolainen.

The bioproduct mill is already deriving 20 percent of its revenue from bioproducts other than pulp. This of course includes a lot of exported energy, but there are also new areas where the mill is already producing valuable bioproducts from its side streams. Poikolainen explains, “As well as energy, we are producing product gas and sulfuric acid from the mill’s ecosystem. We are also producing conventional biochemicals such as tall oil, turpentine, and methanol. Another good example of side stream utilization is via a partner we have on the site who is using our waste water treatment plant sludge to make pellets and to produce biogas.”

There are a few other exciting areas Metsä Group is pursuing in the areas of side streams, particularly in the utilization of lignin, which is increasingly being seen as a valuable raw material for the manufacture of all sorts of biochemicals and biomaterials.

Ilkka Poikolainen (center) discusses operations with members of the bioproduct mill team.

Another area Metsä Group has identified that has a huge potential for the use of its own pulp is in the manufacturing of textiles. It is not commonly known that textiles (in the form of man-made fibers) are one of the worst polluting industries because they release microplastics into the rivers and seas. Textiles made from cellulosic fibers could easily solve the problem. Poikolainen says, “We are researching heavily into the area of making textiles from pulp and are right in the middle of some really interesting research.”

Metsä Group recently established a new innovation company, Metsä Spring, which has been set up to pursue business partnerships with new ideas for bioproducts. Textile innovation and production is one of the key areas being looked at. Poikolainen concludes, “Metsä Spring is planning a greenfield demo plant with the capacity of around 500 tpy of staple fiber for textiles. The planning is based on the idea that the demo plant will be integrated into the bioproduct mill here at Äänekoski. The planning work is being carried out by an international team and the investment is expected by the end of this year.

“Globally, our bioproduct mill concept is exceptional and is the perfect example of an operation working in the growing bioeconomy with its use of renewable raw materials, using no fossil fuels, and using side streams to make other bioproducts. I feel privileged to be the mill manager here at Äänekoski.”

Mark Rushton is senior editor, Europe and Asia, for Paper360°. Reach him at [email protected].