How Nordic Bioproducts Group’s golden formula can save the textile industry

How to recycle polycotton? A Finnish startup believes that its groundbreaking technology can solve the textile industry’s main concern — in only a few years’ time.

22 Aug 2023

After almost 30 years of experience with innovations, R&D, design, and commercialisation at an international level, Olli Kähkönen was working for Aalto University as an innovation catalyst and project researcher at the School of Chemical Engineering.

— In a previous research programme, me and my superior at Aalto, Professor Olli Dahl, had studied the possibilities of finding higher added value end-use applications for paper pulp. We learned that the technologies and processes that can be integrated into a chemical pulp mill are limited due to its sensitive chemical recovery processes. He then came up with an innovation called AaltoCell. We understood that the AaltoCell process and the MCC (microcrystalline cellulose) produced by it could be suitable for traditional direct dissolving in caustic soda and further regenerating in traditional acid baths into man-made cellulosic fibres. All chemicals used in this process were the same already commonly used in pulp mills. We then understood that this methodology would have a unique chance to produce man-made cellulosic fibres in both an effective and environmentally friendly way and thus enable the commercial success of the idea. He explains, adding,

— After testing the idea and myriad modifications to the process, we found the ’golden formula’, and the innovation was born. When I was elected to establish and run a university spinoff, I asked Olli: could we try to utilise AaltoCell in sustainable textile fibre production? This is now Nordic Bioproducts Group, and Olli is my business partner.

What makes you stand out?

— The idea is that we have a technology that can be integrated inside the pulp mill and the knowledge to do it. How we see it, from a sustainability point of view and to make it competitive price-wise, is that you need to find a way to have a solution inside the whole supply chain that is capable of having sustainably cultivated feedstock, existing facilities, and streamlined businesses that are fulfilling the criteria of sustainability. Our first innovation is called Norratex, and we’re working together with CMPC [a Chilean pulp and paper company] to make it from eucalyptus pulp growing in South American forests. They only take seven years to grow and are made in the right way, they’re not disturbing any of the rainforest areas. If you then integrate textile fibre production with it, you are able to, for the first time ever, produce a man-made cellulosic fibre, like viscose, at the same price as the current viscose. Later on, the same technologies can be utilised also with recycled textiles, like polycotton and non-wood-based materials, such as agricultural waste. But one step at a time.

Olli Kähkönen at the Nordic Bioproducts Group HQ.

”If you then integrate textile fibre production with it, you are able to, for the first time ever, produce a man-made cellulosic fibre”

You’re also working with recycling of polycotton. How?

— Yes. After we had proven the AaltoCell hydrolysis process to be suitable and feasible to be used in an MMCF (man-made cellulosic fibres) production process, we wanted to test the hydrolysis [a chemical reaction where a molecule of water breaks one or more chemical bonds] in polycotton waste. It was a surprise to us how efficiently the process worked with the recycling of polycotton and separating the cellulose in cotton and polyester fibres from each other.

What makes polycotton so challenging to recycle? And how will you proceed to do it?

— This is still in the early stage as we have been focusing on other feedstock. Our plan is to start focusing deeper on the textile recycling line this year. The biggest challenge is the heterogeneity, which makes it hard to streamline the process and get sufficient yield and thus making the process economically feasible. It would be much easier to only use cotton waste in our process, but generating true impact in textile recycling cotton waste is not enough as cotton textiles represent less than 10% of the total amount of textile waste. Our aim is to find a way to process polycotton sustainably and make it possible to find a solution to this challenging waste stream which exists in high abundance, Kähkönen states. He adds:

— We’re also interested in developing non-wood-based textile fibres further, and we have found a technology to process wheat straw efficiently and use it in our MMCF process, which we’re planning for 2024.

And for Norratex, can you describe your route to market?

— What we now discuss with cmpc is to integrate it in a pulp mill somewhere between 2027 and 2030 — it will take the next 10–20 years before it is even close to mature.

Want to learn more about Nordic fashion-tech initiatives? Join us for the Transformation Conference in Stockholm on August 31, where Olli Kähkönen is a guest speaker. Sign up here.