New process for a familiar product

23.05.2018

Kari Vanhatalo started out by thinking of ways to create added value for wood fibre and the forest industry. He ended up with a more efficient and ecological production process for powdered cellulose.

As he worked on his dissertation, Vanhatalo says he learned that even a researcher should occasionally look at things from an industry perspective.

The future of producing animal feed could be in the forest, replacing the need to sacrifice large tracts of land for farming. The woods could also be the source of a new, ecological textile.

These are the kinds of applications Kari Vanhatalo has pondered for powdered – or microcrystalline cellulose. Vanhatalo studied ways of developing the production process for this wood-based material in his doctoral dissertation. He defended his dissertation at the Aalto University School of Chemical Engineering a couple of month ago.

‘Microcrystalline cellulose was first developed in the United States, back in the 1950s. It is used as a binding agent in pharmaceutical tablets and as a bulking agent by the food industry. The factories that produce it are quite small and only capable of producing small quantities’, Vanhatalo says of the current situation.

Change may be on its way. Employed at industrial equipment manufacturer Andritz Oy, Vanhatalo is currently developing a production process that would allow the creation of microcrystalline cellulose at large cellulose factories.

‘Industrial production should become a reality in a few years. We would then be able to manufacture larger amounts of microcrystalline cellulose in a more efficient manner. The new process also requires significantly less chemicals and water, while also reducing energy use. Raw material for bioethanol or biogas is created as a by-product’, Vanhatalo says.

Starting from scratch

It took Vanhatalo nine years to finish his dissertation.

‘One of the reasons it took so many years was that the work had to be started from nothing. The research even changed direction as it went on. In the beginning, Professor Olli Dahl, lecturer Kari Parviainen and myself looked for a way to produce bioethanol in a cellulose factory. Our intent was to thus increase the value of the forest industry by creating a new value added product. We soon realised, however, that something was always left over from the process ­– microcrystalline cellulose. In trying to create a pair of trousers, we ended up with a jacket’, he adds with a laugh.

Vanhatalo’s own relationship with forests also played a part. He owns some woodland in Merikarvia village of Köörtilä, where he spent his childhood.

‘Living in the middle of a forest for the first twenty years of one’s life does make a difference. I’ve come to see the forest as a refreshing place, but as resource as well.’

Vanhatalo’s forest holdings even came to play a part in his doctoral research when he felled the pine he had planted 35 years ago with his father. He cut a piece of the tree and brought it to Otaniemi. In the laboratory, his pine became cellulose powder.

Grab a calculator

As he worked on his dissertation, Vanhatalo says he learned that even a researcher should occasionally look at things from an industry perspective.

‘Before you do anything, you should grab a calculator. You should see if your plan is viable in the first place, whether it is sensible, how many chemicals are consumed…’

Commercialising an invention is, according to Vanhatalo, not only about coming up with an idea, but also managing the big picture – being able to turn the idea into a product even when faced with difficulties.