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Sunday, October 28, 2018

Metsä Group: profile of an innovative forest company

While in Helsinki for the 8th Nordic Wood Biorefinery Conference, I connected with Niklas von Weymarn. Niklas and I collaborated on a number of projects when we were both research managers at our respective R&D institutes. Niklas has been with Metsä Group for some years now, and has just moved to the position of CEO of Metsä Spring, a wholly owned subsidiary of Metsä Group. I chatted with Niklas about the Group's thinking while on a visit which he very kindly arranged of their new pulp mill at Äänekoski. 

The new mill is the first new kraft mill built in the Nordic pulp and paper world (I include Canada in this category) in a very long time. At a cost of €1.2 billion for a capacity of 1.3 million tonnes per year, the investment is substantial. The capacity is only partly new, as an older mill was decommissioned as the new one was started, but this still represents 800,000 incremental tonnes of capacity, all softwood. The mill can make a range of grades from birch and softwood, and is essentially state of the art; all that remains of the old mill is a pulp dryer which will also likely be replaced eventually.  

The mill design is meant to be completely fossil-free. This starts with the recovery boiler, a very high pressure unit making enough steam to generate 2.4 times the mill's internal needs for electricity. Some of this is used for onsite vehicles and wood and pulp bale handling equipment, which are all electric; the balance is sold to the grid. The lime kiln is fired using the newest gasifier design from Valmet, running on hardwood bark. The mill also recovers biogas from sludge, sulfuric acid from non-condensable gasses, and calcium carbonate from CO2. (Some of these recovery operations are in partnership with outside companies). Tall oil and turpentine are also recovered for sale. Essentially this is a state-of-the-art mill as outlined in a number of publications over the last decades, from FPInnovations, VTT, STFI (now RISE), Chalmers University and others. 

But the real news is the new subsidiary, Metsä Spring, which is intended to scout for new partners and technologies and support the best ones with investments in equity and space at Äänekoski or elsewhere within Metsä Group operations. This intention is highlighted by the designation of the mill as a bioproduct mill, not a pulp mill. Among the first projects: a wood-to-textile process that bypasses the traditionally challenging carbon disulphide process. Space for the new textile plant is on the site of the old pulp mill, which had essentially been demolished when I visited.

Overall Metsä Group is taking a very innovative approach, and one worth following up on. Stay tuned!

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