Research and innovation

The forest industry is driving the transition to a circular bioeconomy.

Forest raw materials and wood byproducts are already replacing and reducing the need for fossil-based materials such as plastics in packagings, concrete in construction and petroleum in fuels.

Significant research progress is also being made in the development of new materials, products and applications that can reduce costs, cut carbon dioxide emissions and eliminate the need for fossil-based products, while also strengthening Europe’s strategic autonomy.

The wood products of the future

Skyscrapers and batteries are two examples that can be produced using wood-based materials. And what not so long ago seemed technically impossible may soon be reality – using wood.

The construction industry is starting to embrace the many benefits that mass timber, glulam and cross-laminated timber (CLT) offers. These engineered types of wood can be used to build stronger, lighter and higher than previously deemed possible.

Some projects that have utilized the advantages of mass timber at a large scale include Sara Cultural Centre in Sweden, Mjøstårnet in Norway, Brock Commons in Canada and Rocket & Tigerli which is under construction in Switzerland. The strength and properties of mass timber compared with concrete and steel make it possible to build multistory buildings in a sustainable way. Wood construction locks the carbon into the building while saving the carbon emissions needed if built with steel and concrete.

Batteries can be made using lignin, which makes up around 30 per cent of a tree, depending on the species – the rest is largely cellulose. Lignin is a wood polymer and contains carbon, and carbon is a great material for the battery’s anode. The lignin is extracted from waste pulp in pulp factories and can be processed into the carbon material used in the battery anodes.

Research has also shown that using nanocellulose broken down from tree fibers can create elastic high-capacity batteries – making an elastic, foam-like battery material that can withstand shock and stress.

Products that can be made with wood:

Textiles from the forest

The clothes we wear today are largely produced from oil-based textiles such as polyester, fleece and elastane. Net imports of textiles in 2021 amounted to nearly 15 kilos per Swede,[1] a significant share of which is comprised of oil-based material. Synthetic fibres account for around 60 per cent of the world’s fibre consumption.[2] Apart from having a significant climate impact, these fossil-based textiles cause emissions of microplastics into the environment that accumulate in plant and animal life. There are alternatives to synthetic fibres that can limit the fashion industry’s environmental impact. Textiles made from cellulose fibres such as viscose, modal and lyocell are already available, and the search for new innovative materials continues. In one such initiative, Stora Enso, H&M and Inter IKEA are collaborating on the Tree to Textile project, which aims to produce sustainable textile fibres at a consumer-friendly price. One major advantage with textiles made from forest raw materials is that nature itself has refined the process of biodegrading cellulose materials. Re:newcell, initiated at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, is working with this to produce textile pulp for viscose fabrics from biodegradable materials. Swedish innovation is paving the way for a circular, sustainable textile industry.

Batteries of the future

The comprehensive electrification of society is needed for Sweden’s transition to carbon neutrality. Battery technology needs to undergo a revolution to meet energy storage needs, which are expected to increase tenfold in the coming decade. One problem with today’s lithium-ion batteries is that they require graphite extracted from fossil coal, the mining of which has major environmental consequences. The forest offers a sustainable alternative.

Lignin, which gives wood its strength, has historically been merely a by-product of cellulose fibre. Stora Enso has developed a process to refine lignin into hard carbon powder, which can be used as an anode in lithium-ion batteries in place of graphite. Stora Enso and Northvolt have initiated a development collaboration to develop the world’s first industrialised battery with anodes produced entirely from European raw materials. Meanwhile, based on research conducted at Linköping University, Ligna Energy is developing bio-based batteries that can fully replace lithium in batteries. Particularly useful in IoT applications, these batteries can be recycled anywhere or burned as biofuel.