What if cattle all over the world were eating Finnish wood?
A manufacturing process developed in Aalto opens up completely new markets for microcrystalline cellulose. In the future, it could fortify cattle feed, be added to cinnamon buns, and even prevent disease among farm animals.
In a way, it all began by coincidence.
Around a decade ago, Finland’s forest industry was in the throes of major transformation, and Professor Olli Dahl began to consider, together with his research group, what else the factories could manufacture instead of paper pulp.
‘We considered changing pulp factories to ethanol factories, such that paper pulp would be used directly, instead of using dissolving pulp, and the manufacturing process would use high temperatures and diluted acid hydrolysis – which would mean very small quantities of sulphuric acid. We obtained sugars for the ethanol, just as we wanted, but also ended up with a mass which refused to dissolve despite repeated hydrolysis processes.’
That mass was microcrystalline cellulose or MCC: a valuable substance which up to that point had been manufactured only in small factories and primarily as a filler for medicines. Dahl and his colleagues quickly sorted out the patent and realised that no one else anywhere in the world had manufactured MCC using the same procedure and on the scale of a pulp factory.
‘We also realised that even with just one factory as large as the one in Kemijärvi, the market would soon be saturated if we didn’t also develop other use cases.’
One of the potential high-volume markets is the animal feed industry. Because it is 100% cellulose, MCC is truly a power food for ruminants (animals which chew the cud), and so it could be used to raise the caloric density of animal feed. For nonruminant animals, such as poultry and pigs, microcrystalline cellulose does not provide energy but can instead boost well-being by providing additional fibre.
‘In the experiments, the chickens which were fed MCC ate less and grew more. We assume that the microcrystalline cellulose either absorbs harmful substances in the animals’ intestines or the phenolic compounds of the lignin contained in the MCC are effective in killing bacteria. This could even reduce the need for antibiotics, which would be a big thing in areas such as Southeast Asia’, Dahl points out.
Extra fibre would also be good for many people. Once the lignin has been removed, microcrystalline cellulose looks like white wheat flour, and Dahl believes it would be suitable for adding to cinnamon rolls or morning porridge.
‘It is real locally-produced fibre and undoubtedly pure. We are currently investigating options for cooperating with a number of different Finnish food product manufacturers.’
- A technology developed by a team led by Aalto University Professor Olli Dahl which enables the ecological and economical manufacture of microcrystalline cellulose.
- The procedure uses only one hundredth of the amount of sulphuric acid used in the normal method for producing microcrystalline cellulose, and the heat and electricity needed for the process are generated from bark and black liquor obtained from the wood delivered to the factory. In addition to microcrystalline cellulose, the manufacturing process also produces sugars which can be used to produce either ethanol or biogas.
- Aalto has signed an agreement with ANDRITZ Oy for the export of AaltoCell™ technology to the global market. The parties to the agreement are also carrying out research cooperation with the goal of finding new use cases for microcrystalline cellulose, with the textile industry being one possible target market.