Wood-eating cow may secure food production
Researchers at Aalto University have developed a method by which microcrystalline cellulose can be manufactured in a manner that is both environmentally friendly and efficient for purposes such as the animal feed industry. This increases the amount of land available for the cultivation of human food, and new, sustainable business is generated for chemical pulp mills.
The manufacturing method invented by a research group led by Professor Olli Dahl is a good example of clean technology expected to offer hope for the future as concerns both the environment and the economy of Finland.
'Until now, the large amount of chemicals required and small production units have kept the price of microcrystalline cellulose (MCC), so high that it has been utilised mainly as a non-active ingredient in pharmaceuticals. We manufacture MCC in chemical pulp mills, using significantly smaller quantities of chemicals, thus creating a situation where the production costs are brought down and new opportunities open up for its use. The process has already been patented, and we have recently registered the AaltoCell™ brand for the product,' he explains with enthusiasm.
According to Olli Dahl, the most promising market, particularly in terms of volume, can be found in the animal feed industry. As 100 per cent cellulose, the product is easily digestible and offers a good source of energy.
'Grass, for example, contains only 30 per cent cellulose, 10 per cent lignin and 30 per cent hemicellulose, which increases acidity in the rumen of ruminants. If MCC is mixed into cow feed as ingredient, for example, the well-being of the animals is increased, as are their production levels. This increases the amount of land available for the cultivation of human food, which is vital for securing the production of food also in the future.'
Biogas from side product
Finland is famous for its forests and its forest industry, but paper consumption is decreasing on a constant basis. Developing existing infrastructure is thus sensible from the viewpoints of both the economy and the environment.
'With AaltoCell™, microcrystalline cellulose can be manufactured in pulp mills in such large volumes that its price can be expected to drop significantly from the current level. At the same time, the production is environmentally friendly, as the energy required by the process is obtained from organic matter dissolved from the wood, i.e. black liquor, and bark removed from the trees. Sugars generated as a side product of the manufacturing of AaltoCell™ can be used to produce biogas, which can then be used as a substitute for fossil fuels,' Olli Dahl explains.
As the production volumes increase, it will also be possible to utilise microcrystalline cellulose in construction and the chemical industry in addition to the feed industry. When making bricks, MCC can be added to the mixture for a more porous and lighter end result. At the burning stage, it gives off part of the energy required to burn the bricks. Mixed with plastic, it produces a harder material without changing the appearance of the end product.
'Once the price of MCC comes down, the search for new applications will also become more attractive,' Professor Dahl concludes.
The Academy of Finland has supported the development of the production technology of AaltoCell. The commercialization of the innovation was done with the helpt of Tekes-funded project 'New knowledge and business from research ideas’.
Professor Olli Dahl
olli.dahl [at] aalto [dot] fi
+358 40 5401070