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Pulp mills could be massive source of synthetic fuel

Synthetic fuel made from carbon dioxide from ten mills could possibly supply all of Finland's needs and then some.

Kuvassa on UPM:n tehdas Lappeenrannassa.
The carbon dioxide in the flue gases of pulp mills can be turned into synthetic fuels. Image: Esa Hiltula / AOP

Emissions from pulp mill smokestacks may turn out to be a valuable source of raw material for Finland in the future.

Carbon dioxide can be scrubbed from mill smoke and combined with hydrogen to produce synthetic fuels that can replace petrol and diesel.

The Lappeenranta – Lahti University of Technology LUT published a study on Friday in cooperation with with the energy company St1 and the engineering technology company Wärtsilä, according to which Finland could become fully energy self-sufficient and completely end the use of fossil energy sources.

Fuels could even be exported from Finland.

“We would earn five billion euros from exports of synthetic fuels and eliminate five billion euros in spending on imports of fossil fuels,” claims Petteri Laaksonen, Research Director at Lappeenranta – Lahti University of Technology.

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Petteri Laaksonen
LUT University Research Director Petteri Lehtonen. Image: Kare Lehtonen / Yle

Only 10 mills needed

One option examined in LUT's research is a model that uses carbon dioxide produced by the ten largest pulp mills in the country to produce synthetic fuels.

A mere 40 percent of the synthetic fuel generated would to cover all of Finland's energy needs with the remaining 60 percent available for export.

But, there's a catch. The production by electrolysis of the hydrogen needed would require increasing electricity production by as much as 270 percent.

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Significantly more wind power will be needed if there is a switch to major synthetic fuel production. Image: Pasi Takkunen / Yle

According to Laaksonen, the economic conditions for a significant increase in wind power already exist, even without state subsidies.

“Wind power is already the cheapest form of electricity generation in Northern Europe, and the price is still falling. A decline in the price of electricity will ensure that the production of hydrogen, and thus also the production of synthetic fuels, will become cheaper all the time,” says Laaksonen.

Economic boost

If this technology is rolled out, it would have a massive impact on the Finnish economy. An improvement in the trade balance by 10 billion euros alone would radically change the conditions for economic activity in one fell swoop.

In 2019, Finland imported goods worth about 65.8 billion euros and exported about 65 billion euros.

A synthetic fuels industry would also create jobs.

“Tens of thousands of new permanent jobs would come to of Finland that have otherwise been in recession,” Petteri Laaksonen, notes.

Plenty of bio-based CO2

According to Laaksonen, the basic prerequisites for the production of synthetic fuels in Finland are good. For example, wood-based carbon dioxide is abundantly available.

“We have a lot of forest-sourced carbon dioxide generated from pulp manufacturing. We have loads of water and we have the possibility to generate cheap electricity with wind power,” he points out.

The technology needed to make synthetic fuels also already exists and is on the market.

“It is a fully commercialised technology that is available. There is nothing mysterious about it,” Laaksonen stresses.

Economically feasible

LUT, St1 and Wärtsilä looked at the profitability of the production of synthetic fuels through the lens of a practical example. The study modeled the construction of a pilot plant at Joutseno, in Lappeenranta, operating in conjunction with the Kemira plant at that site.

The pilot facility would access hydrogen from Kemira's chemical plant and carbon dioxide from Finnsement's Lappeenranta cement plant. The end product would be petrol engine fuel, for example.

“We modeled the investment and operating costs of the plant, and the results look good. It would not be a gold mine, but it is definitely worth taking a closer look at,” Petteri Laaksonen says.

The St1 energy company confirmed that finding.

“Research shows that there is a future for synthetic fuels,” says Timo Huhtisaari, St1's Director for Sustainability & Future Business.

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Kemira Chemicals Joutsenon tehdas.
The Joutseno pilot production facility would receive hydrogen from Kemira's Joutseno plant Image: Kari Kosonen / Yle

Competing with other biofuels

However, Huhtisaari emphasises that changes in the law are needed before the industry can start investing in this technology.

Today, fuel suppliers have to mix fossil fuels with one-fifth biofuels. According to Huhtisaari, a similar blending obligation should be imposed on synthetic fuels.

“Before such legislation exists, it will be difficult to find companies to come out to invest in this,” says Timo Huhtisaari.

The Ministry of Employment and the Economy says that an amendment to the law is already being prepared to update it to include synthetic fuels.

The government is likely to put forward a proposal on the matter that will go before parliament next year.

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