Ecohelix’s main innovation is all about utilizing hemicellulose, which is on average about 25-30% of the biomass of trees. It seems downright incredible that it has not been possible to take advantage of this before. Now, things have changed and Ecohelix provides a solution: it has been the result of persistent research but also inspired by the amazing biorefineries of nature. The hot and humid rainforests of Brazil and the extensive boreal ferests of Nordic countries both circulate carbon in different ways enabled by fungi and other micro-organisms. To utilize these phenomena is just what Ecohelix is doing.
“From a young age, I have been interested in nature. Just observing nature in literal grass root level with all its intricacies has always given me a lot of enjoyment”, says Petri Oinonen, founder and CEO of Ecohelix.
To deepen the understanding, he started the studies at the Department of Microbiology and Applied Chemistry in University of Helsinki. First, he studied fungi and the molecular biology of them, which made him realise the amazing potential they have.
“I wanted to understand more. I even went to Brazil to find totally new species in the rainforests, new potential from these biodiversity hot-spots”, Oinonen tells.
After this, technological utilization of these molecular phenomena took over and he started the PhD work at the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden.
Rainforests as inspiration
“That was actually the beginning of the path to where we are now”, Oinonen reveals.
This ’a-ha’ experience came from walking in the Brazilian rainforests and realizing how they work: understanding how the trees and fungi work together and create a balanced cycle of carbon flows enabled by enzymatic reactions. This is hugely important in rainforests where this cycle is extremely efficient and crucial for the ecosystem.
“Unfortunately, we humans are destroying these systems at an alarming level – and just releasing all that carbon to the atmosphere.”
Enzymes that are the key, are catalysts that allow certain reactions to be performed orders of magnitude more efficiently. In other words, they accelerate chemical reactions and often enable reactions that are not possible in conventional ways. This is highly interesting from processing point of view.
The sensitive resource
Over the years, the interest extended from fungal enzymes and led to the study of trees and different components such as cellulose and hemicellulose lurking in them. What exactly are they?
Indeed, many know that cellulose pulp is a staple product of the paper industry. The wood also contains another substance that sounds almost the same, hemicellulose. It is surprisingly abundant in wood and acts in the same way as lignin, as a binder.
In his dissertation, Petri Oinonen studied these three main entities, cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin, and how these form a large network structure inside the wood. A bit like in the world of fungi in the forests.
“In wood network structures, hemicelluloses are mainly located between lignin and cellulose. But they are branched and sensitive. Unlike cellulose, which is a more robust linear and large polymer”, explains Oinonen.
Ecohelix assists pulping processes
From a process perspective, hemicellulose is involved in all pulping processes. The processing of wood, without exception generates side streams with a fairly high hemicellulose content. So far, it has not been used much. The reason for this is that hemicelluloses are small in molecular size and mixed with other wood components and process chemicals. Through long research, Ecohelix has been able to bring a solution to this and utilize the hemicelluloses.
“With the help of our technology, say, using enzymes, we are able to increase the molecular size of hemicellulose,” says Oinonen.
After that, isolating them from wastewater is much easier and simpler.
“You can often do these things in the lab but taking it to industrial proportions is the real challenge. For that, you need skilled engineers and chemists who understands the industrial requirements and scale-up challenges”, he explains.
Now that too is possible and real. For years, Ecohelix has been testing this in industrial conditions and have recovered the process water from the pulp mills.
“We have been isolating hemicelluloses and taken them through the whole Ecohelix process. These can then be used in a variety of material applications that we are very excited about”, clarifies Oinonen.
The market is waiting
Today, for example, oxygen barriers are used on the inner surfaces of milk and juice packages to prevent oxygen from entering consumer products. When peeking into the jars, you will notice that they are shiny and used with aluminium. The idea of Ecohelix is to replace such materials that are foreign and unfriendly to nature, or difficult to recycle like aluminium or even oil-based substances.
It even sounds incomprehensible that such a valuable resource has so far ended up untapped in wastewater. But the reason is clear. The right processing tools and the market demand for biobased solutions has not been there.
“So, Ecohelix now has a solution to utilize the hemicelluloses, but we are also able to reduce the amount of organic matter in the sidestreams. This benefits the pulp mills and thus reduces costs. This makes it possible for us to offer something very exciting also for the mill partners.”
In the Nordic countries, especially Sweden and Finland, forest industry research has a strong position as the pulp and paper industry has been the cornerstone of the whole economy.
“The importance has become even greater during the last few years and lot has been invested in research. It seems that the decision makers have realized the renewed potential of the forest industry in creating impact. Besides the financial impact that has previously been important, now the environmental impact is much more evident as well”, Oinonen explains.
The Ecohelix technology was originally developed specifically for the processes and needs of mechanical and pre-hydrolysis pulping. The early work was done in the Nordic countries, but there are many players and factories in this field around the world. Also, the research is very international, and biomass related issues are always topical.
“Personally, I’ve been to a lot of conferences in places like China, South Africa and the United States that has helped to get in contact with the international players.”
All in all, the curiosity towards natural phenomena paid off and created a solid foundation for the development and future operations.
“Our wonderful team is now ready to take Ecohelix to production and to the global scene. We are extremely excited to see how far we can take this.”