The Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke), like many other organisations, are working on projects that help to tackle the global challenges like climate change, land and ecosystem degradation and seek new ways of producing and consuming that respect the ecological boundaries of our planet. As one of the most multi-disciplinary research institutes on the globe, and located in a country of most forests in Europe (23 million hectares, or 74% of the land area it is appropriate that Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke) are among the leaders in building the processes to untap forest resources’ potential and consider the value of the tree as a holistic entity.
There are many hidden heroes found in our forests and one that has attracted a lot of attention is bark. Whilst traditionally we have seen trees as sources of timber, firewood, food, a sound barrier or simply something nice to look, all too often tree bark has been overlooked. Throughout history, our trees have provided us with a versatile, durable and plentiful natural biomass but with the impacts of climate change now with us, fully harnessing all of its potential is more important than ever.
Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke) is perfectly placed to deliver the services, solutions and connections essential to take circular and bioeconomy projects from those early planning stages to full delivery – and actually makes things happen!
Pekka Saranpää, Research Manager at LUKE ( @LukeFinlandInt ) and an expert in forest products and biorefinery with over 30 years of experience, gives us an introduction into what bark offers: “It really is a treasure chest! From pharmaceuticals to cosmetics and food, bark is a remarkably versatile source of raw materials. It contains anti-microbial and antioxidant compounds which can be used as preservatives and ingredients to enhance the taste of food products. It can also provide raw materials for industrial applications like adhesives and insulating materials and can even help in removing impurities.”
Maximising the potential of bark products complies with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The better utilisation of bark is in line with SDG #13 – “Use of biomass to produce goods reduces the use of fossil-based products and related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions” and SDG #14 – “Enhanced value of biodiversity as a bioeconomy asset”.
Whilst Luke’s approach is a great example of SDG #17 “Partnerships for the Goals”, where industry works alongside the public sector to develop more integrated solutions to the challenges we face. Their basic models are co-funded or customer-funded research, as well as offering public-private partnerships plus commercialisation of research results.
An emphasis on a better use of bark is also a focus for the European Union through its policies and research is promoting the cascading use of wood – a circular economy approach that prioritises higher value uses, with bioenergy production as the last resort, only when other options are running out. Bark is currently used almost solely for combustion, when it could and should be used for so much more, as applications in many industry sector. This is something Luke are endeavouring to change.
One of the fascinating projects that Luke are working on focuses on biopolyesters from birch bark, which can protect solid wood and cardboard from moisture. The purpose of tree bark is to protect the tree whether from animals, disease or even fire, so it makes sense that this can be harnessed to protect products and is the focus of another ongoing industrial collaboration. The key is in the suberin fatty acids found in birch and aspen bark to repel moisture.
Another is the InnoTrea project, funded by the Academy of Finland which is investigating whether the tannins extracted from tree bark could prevent the oxidization of fats in reindeer meat and improve preservation. There may also be potential for the tannins to add some exotic flavours and aromas to the reindeer meat.
Despite it being found in huge volumes and being highly versatile, bark has been largely neglected as a source of raw materials, certainly in comparison with cellulose fibres. I ask Pekka, why attention to bark’s usability has increased only in recent years; “Oil is still abundant and products made from it have a host of advantages accrued over decades – high production volumes, efficiency and of course, lower price. But this is now changing as demand increase for sustainable products and there are an increasing number of projects focussed on making the processes of harvesting bark more efficient.”
There are other challenges beyond just the entrenched fossil-based alternatives. Bark contains a wide range of materials, as well as a variety of cell tissue and chemical components which makes refinement challenging. Bark is a biological material with many kinds of enzymatic activity. Reactions can be difficult to control. Other obstacles to be overcome are found in the wood procurement chain.
Challenges? Yes, and it is the nature of change, especially when it comes to sustainable and bio-based products. Momentum is growing in the desire to find new and better ways of producing our everyday products. From boardroom to consumers, there is an increasing awareness to use our natural resources more efficiently and wisely.
“Taking a cascading approach to the use of wood is the smartest approach – directing it to high value use before it is reused, recycled and finally combusted for heating or energy. Taking wood straight from the forest and burning it just doesn’t make sense if it can be used for other products first,” states Pekka.
With rising commercial interest, growing legislative support and abundant availability, bark can be one of the key building blocks for our circular bioeconomy. Finland is a renowned hub for the global forest bioeconomy and in particular Luke with its focus on creative thinking and multidisciplinary cooperation, an emphasis on value-added creation and commercial as well as environmental sustainability is well placed to lead the potential value to be created from natural resources.
To learn more about working with Luke on maximising the potential of bark, contact John Kettle, Customer Solutions and International Relations – firstname.lastname@example.org
This feature originally appeared in Issue #17 of the Bio Market Insights Quarterly.
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