Doctoral researcher Miia Kokkonen will study catalytic modification of carbohydrates in collaboration with Borealis

The universities of Helsinki and Tampere run a joint DSII Scale-up Pilot project together with the Technology Industries of Finland Centennial Foundation and participating companies. The pilot programme offers positions for doctoral researchers working in close cooperation with industry. We talked with Miia Kokkonen, who is one of the eight researchers selected for the programme. She has recently started her 4-year research project on the catalytic modification of carbohydrates, collaborating with Borealis as industry partner.

Miia Kokkonen did her Master’s Thesis in chemistry at University of Oulu where her topic was related to catalysts and their usage in water purification. Miia’s selection in the Doctorate Research programme of DSII (Doctoral School of Industrial Innovations) at University of Helsinki is a natural continuum to her studies and interest in catalysis.  In her 4-year research, Miia Kokkonen aims to find sustainable ways to use selective catalysts for the conversion of carbohydrates (or sugars) from lignocellulosic biomass, in particular hemicellulose to smaller molecules which can be processed as feasible feedstock for plastics production.

Hemicellulose is an abundant material in nature as the name represents a wide group of polysaccharides existing in almost all plant cell walls. In forest industry, as about 25% of wood biomass is made up of hemicellulose, it forms a major side stream, which is currently largely being incinerated, i.e. used as a source of energy for the pulp mills. It is however being challenged if there were a more sustainable way to valorise these existing industrial streams as materials instead of burning. Hemicellulose could be processed into value-added chemicals with many end uses for example in petrochemical industries. In Borealis’ case, hemicellulose is an interesting alternative to fossil-based raw materials (feedstocks) in the production of low alkanes or alkenes. Those hydrocarbons could be used as a steam cracker feed or directly as a raw material for plastics production. This would enable a new route to sustainable long-life polyolefin products such as electrical cables or water pipes critical for our society.

Miia Kokkonen is excited to collaborate with Borealis to gain real-life industry insights and expert guidance from Borealis’ Ismo Savallampi and Kaisa Lamminpää during her tenure. Her work will be supervised by professors Timo Repo from University of Helsinki and Ville Santala from University of Tampere. Miia summarises her research as follows: “The purpose of my work is to create new knowledge for the academic research and industry about the catalytic modification of carbohydrates, especially the modification of hemicellulose and other biomass side-streams into polymer raw materials. In my work, I plan to combine the latest experimental methods of chemistry research with experimental design, automation and machine learning.”

The goals of this research project are to

  1. Produce new know-how and understanding of catalytic dehydration and cleavage of carbohydrates by utilizing e.g. statistical analysis and machine learning;
  2. To plan and carry out follow-up reactions to produce polymerizable monomers from the products of point 1; and
  3. Techno-economic evaluation of processes based on the developed synthesis routes by modeling and other methods.

Professor Timo Repo says: “The DSII Scale-up pilot project for the catalytic modification of carbohydrates, which has just started, creates very interesting research setting that combines characteristics of both the academic world and the business world. This, and the active participation of the company, make this project very innovative and inspiring for the researchers. The results of the project are patentable and will eventually be distributed in scientific peer-reviewed journals, international conferences, doctoral network events and events with industry.

Ismo Savallampi, who is the leader of the R&D theme renewable feedstock within the SPIRIT programme, is looking forward to the collaboration with Miia on the research work. He sums up: “Hemicellulose extracted from industrial side or waste streams is one interesting sustainable raw material as it is currently burned to energy in large scale in Finland. Unlocking a feasible chemical route from hemicellulose to plastic raw materials could potentially enable better value-added business for both forest and plastics industry.”

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