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Sunday, October 28, 2018

Review: 8th Nordic Wood Biorefinery Conference

I attended the 8th Nordic Wood Biorefinery Conference in Helsinki, October 23-25, 2018. Finland is a wonderful place to visit, and the opportunity to see some more of the country and visit with former colleagues, combined with the high level of excellence now expected of conference organisers, made it impossible to resist.

Going back to the inaugural event in Stockholm in 2008, NWBC remains the benchmark event for anyone interested in pathways to novel products (chemicals, composites, fibres) from the forest, and I am glad to report that the 2018 scientific committee maintained the tradition of excellence. Combined with the International Lignin Conference held in Edmonton in September, there is now a solid critical mass of researchers working in the area of novel forest products and which is able to support these conferences with world-class papers and presentations.

I was asked by the conference organisers to write up a daily blog. This was a journalistic review of who said what, and when, and was posted, hot off my laptop, on the conference website immediately after the end of sessions each day. It is therefore quite likely that the text is somewhat inaccurate, repetitive and poorly written... these raw, unedited daily posts are linked on the front page of the conference website (click here). Meanwhile I am preparing a more in-depth critical review, with commentary about how the more important papers fit in the broader technical and economic context; I hope to identify the larger trends and more promising technologies to watch for. Let me know if you are interested in this.

I'll limit myself here to describing the opening keynote speech, by Berry Wiersum, CEO of SAPPI Europe. He described the current context as a period of intense change and innovation. Technically this is a good time to be involved in research and development. But huge policy battles are brewing in Brussels, with forest owners, forest companies, oil companies, the EU Parliament and NGOs involved, all tugging in their individual directions. The key driver is this: Brand-owners such as Nestle, Unilever or Coca-Cola want low-cost, light weight, thin, recyclable barrier coatings against water, air and grease; this is where R&D needs to focus. Separately, there is a strong political need for the forest sector to become more energy efficient, even if it is true that the industry’s energy needs are largely met by burning carbon neutral fuels. From a business perspective, these carbon neutral fuels consist mainly of lignin, and far more value can be unlocked if the lignin is used elsewhere. Are deep eutectic solvents a solution? This technology is still a long way in the future. A very interesting view from industry.

All in all a great event, and I am looking forward to the next one to be held in Stockholm in March 2020. Stay tuned!

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