Through a collaborative R&D effort that’s driving innovation in Finland’s forest industry, Metsä Spring is now factory testing a new technology for converting cellulose into textile fiber.
Metsä Spring is an innovation and investment company set up by forest-industry giant Metsä Group. Its job is to identify and develop technology-driven growth opportunities for the parent company, including new ways of using cellulose.
CEO Niklas von Weymarn, who previously worked as a Research Director at Metsä Fibre, another of the group’s companies, says co-creation between multiple actors is the best way to foster the kind of innovation the Metsä Group is looking for.
“We recognize that most of the new ideas for this industry will be generated outside of the Metsä Group,” says Niklas. “So we believe in doing things together, in co-creating. When you have a good mix of organizations with different competencies – like you do in the New Fibres ecosystem – that’s when the magic starts to happen.”
Testing new technology
Metsä Spring’s first project is a joint venture with Japanese trading-house Itochu Corporation, a long-time Metsä Group partner. The two will build a demo plant in Finnish forestry hub Äänekoski to test a new technology for converting cellulose into textile fiber. Cellulose is one of the main constituents of wood.
It all started in 2009, when 25 partners – a mix of universities, research institutes, SMEs and large companies – came together in a research program called Future Biorefinery (FuBio). Coordinated by CLIC Innovation, the program was set up to develop new wood-based products. It’s work on new solvents to make textile fibers from cellulose eventually became the basis for the technology that will be tested in the Äänekoski demo plant.
“Nobody has done this before on an industrial scale,” says Niklas. “We need to study how efficient and economically viable the technology is, and this is not something that can be done in a lab. So we are now building a small factory to demonstrate and finalise the technology.”
If the demo plant proves that industrial-scale production with the new technology is possible, it will open opportunities to increase the share of wood-based fibers on the 100 million ton global market for textile fibers. In addition to the potential business benefits, using cellulose for a wider range of applications has environmental benefits too.
“Forests play a vitally important role on our planet, so we have an obligation to manage them well and use the wood wisely,” says Niklas. “Creating products with a higher value means we get more out of a single tree. Textile fibers are good examples of these kind of products.”
“Most of today’s textiles are produced using oil and cotton as the raw material,” he says. “Both burden our planet significantly more than producing the same fibers from wood.“