They create green factories

[2009-11-26] Almost all chemicals and vehicle fuels originate from fossil sources. Researchers and entrepreneurs along the coast of Northern Sweden want to change this. They speak of green energy and green chemicals for medicines, clothes and packaging. Their ”oil” is made from remains from trees and plants.

Umeå University has recently appointed two new Professors of Technical Chemistry, Leif Jönsson and Jyri-Pekka Mikkola. Their research is closely related to the companies in Örnsköldsvik and the Biofuel Region, a joint vision that the countys of Västerbotten and Västernorrland should become a leading world region in the transition to green products from renewable raw materials.
– We are several different players who are looking for solutions that would enable us to become independent of the oil refineries, Jyri-Pekka Mikkola says.

Green factories

Both professors instead talk of green factories or bio refineries where it is possible to produce many different types of products, everything from fuel to medicines. For example, it can be a matter of extracting active substances from the trees’ chemical defence system, for example, lignan for the production of health supplements which can lower cholesterol or counteract cancer in human beings.
Lignocellulose exists in large quantities in plants and trees in our environment and constitutes one of our absolutely greatest recoverable natural resources. Just like crude oil, lignocellulose can be processed through metal catalysis, but it is also possible to convert it into different products using biocatalysts like microorganisms and enzymes. It is also these different directions the professors are taking in their research.
– We have different tools but the same goals – to improve production, Leif Jönsson says.
He has concentrated his research on biocatalysts and it is a challenge to produce catalysts with the best imaginable properties in a cost-efficient way. Nowadays, they are relatively expensive to produce and often large quantities of them are required to set up industrial processes which are fast enough. Moreover, they are sensitive to harsh conditions such as high temperatures and to inhibiting agents which may be present in the complex environment of a bio refinery.
– We are trying to sift out suitable biocatalysts by going through a number of different naturally occurring variants. We also work with existing biocatalysts in an attempt to customise them using genetic engineering, Leif Jönsson says.

Big difference between biomaterial and oil

Jyri-Pekka Mikkola works with classic metal catalysis. Even if the method has been used for a long time in the oil industry, completely new technologies are required to make it possible to use it in bio refineries.
– Biomaterial and oil are extremely different and this has major implications. Unlike oil, biomaterial has a lot of oxygen bound to its molecular structure and this is why it easily dissolves in water. Oil, on the other hand, cannot be mixed with water. In connection with metal catalysis, it is possible to use tens of different metals and it is a matter of finding the right combinations, he explains.
The vision is to combine enzyme catalysis and metal catalysis so that the raw material comes in and the product comes out from the same reactor.

More youths needed

Together with plant researchers at the Umeå Plant Science Centre, Leif Jönsson has started collaboration on how plants buil up and brake down wood. Nowadays, we lack exact knowledge as to how this is done and it is only when the researchers fully understand this that they will be capable of using it in the best way. Another interesting cooperating partner is Åbo Akademi University, Jyri-Pekka Mikkola’s former home university. They have now signed an agreement on research and teaching so as to share each other’s knowledge.
– A great challenge is to entice more youths to study technical chemistry so that together we can create a sustainable society in the future, Jyri-Pekka Mikkola finishes.

Photo: Jan Lindmark

Editor: Karin Wikman

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