Synthetic biology opens up a new development path for the wood industry | Faculty of Science and Technology, University of Tartu

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Lossi 36, 51003 Tartu
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Contacts of UT units

Faculty of Arts and Humanities
Faculty phone: 
+372 737 5341
Faculty address: 
Jakobi 2, rooms 116–121, 51005 Tartu
  • Dean's Office
    Faculty phone: 
    + 372 737 5341
    Faculty address: 
    Jakobi 2, rooms 116–121, 51005 Tartu
  • Institute of History and Archaeology
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5651
    Faculty address: 
    Jakobi 2, 51005 Tartu
  • Institute of Estonian and General Linguistics
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5221
    Faculty address: 
    Jakobi 2, 51005 Tartu
  • Institute of Philosophy and Semiotics
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5314
    Faculty address: 
    Jakobi 2, rooms 309–352, 51005 Tartu
  • Institute of Cultural Research
    Faculty phone: 
    (+372) 737 5223
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 16, 51003 Tartu
  • School of Theology and Religious Studies
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5301
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18–310, 50090 Tartu
  • College of Foreign Languages and Cultures
    Faculty address: 
    J. Liivi 4, 50409, Tartu
  • Viljandi Culture Academy
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 435 5232
    Faculty address: 
    Posti 1, 71004 Viljandi
Faculty of Social Sciences
Faculty phone: 
+372 737 5957
Faculty address: 
Lossi 36, 51003 Tartu
  • Dean's Office
    Faculty phone: 
    + 372 737 5900
    Faculty address: 
    Lossi 36, 51003 Tartu
  • Institute of Education
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 6440
    Faculty address: 
    Salme 1a–29, 50103 Tartu
  • Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5582
    Faculty address: 
    Lossi 36–301, 51003 Tartu
  • School of Economics and Business Administration
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 6310
    Faculty address: 
    Narva mnt 18, 51009 Tartu
  • Institute of Psychology
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5902
    Faculty address: 
    Näituse 2, 50409 Tartu
  • School of Law
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5390
    Faculty address: 
    Näituse 20–324, 50409 Tartu
  • Institute of Social Studies
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5188
    Faculty address: 
    Lossi 36, 51003 Tartu
  • Narva College
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 740 1900
    Faculty address: 
    Raekoja plats 2, 20307 Narva
  • Pärnu College
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 445 0520
    Faculty address: 
    Ringi 35, 80012 Pärnu
Faculty of Medicine
Faculty phone: 
+372 737 5326
Faculty address: 
Ravila 19, 50411 Tartu
  • Dean's Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5326
    Faculty address: 
    Ravila 19, 50411 Tartu
  • Institute of Biomedicine and Translational Medicine
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 4210
    Faculty address: 
    Biomeedikum, Ravila 19, 50411 Tartu
  • Institute of Pharmacy
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5286
    Faculty address: 
    Nooruse 1, 50411 Tartu
  • Institute of Dentistry
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 731 9856
    Faculty address: 
    Raekoja plats 6, 51003 Tartu
  • Institute of Clinical Medicine
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5323
    Faculty address: 
    L. Puusepa 8, 50406 Tartu
  • Institute of Family Medicine and Public Health
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 4190
    Faculty address: 
    Ravila 19, 50411 Tartu
  • Institute of Sport Sciences and Physiotherapy
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5360
    Faculty address: 
    Jakobi 5–205, 51005 Tartu
Faculty of Science and Technology
Faculty phone: 
+372 737 5820
Faculty address: 
Vanemuise 46–208, 51014 Tartu
  • Dean's Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5820
    Faculty address: 
    Vanemuise 46–208, 51003 Tartu
  • Institute of Computer Science
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5445
    Faculty address: 
    Narva mnt 18, 51009 Tartu
  • Estonian Marine Institute
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 671 8902
    Faculty address: 
    Mäealuse 14, 12618 Tallinn
  • Institute of Physics
    Faculty address: 
    W. Ostwaldi 1, 50411 Tartu
  • Institute of Chemistry
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5261
    Faculty address: 
    Ravila 14a, 50411 Tartu
  • Institute of Mathematics and Statistics
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5860
    Faculty address: 
    Narva mnt 18, 51009 Tartu
  • Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5027
    Faculty address: 
    Riia 23, 23b–134, 51010 Tartu
  • Tartu Observatory
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 4510
    Faculty address: 
    Observatooriumi 1, Tõravere, 61602 Tartumaa
  • Institute of Technology
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 4800
    Faculty address: 
    Nooruse 1, 50411 Tartu
  • Institute of Ecology and Earth Sciences
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5835
    Faculty address: 
    Vanemuise 46, 51003 Tartu
Institutions
  • Library
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5702
    Faculty address: 
    W. Struve 1, 50091 Tartu
  • Youth Academy
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5581
    Faculty address: 
    Uppsala 10, 51003 Tartu
  • Institute of Genomics
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 4000
    Faculty address: 
    Riia 23b, 51010 Tartu
  • Museum
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5674
    Faculty address: 
    Lossi 25, 51003 Tartu
  • University of Tartu Natural History Museum and Botanical Garden
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 6076
    Faculty address: 
    Vanemuise 46, 51003 Tartu
Support Units
  • Administrative Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5606
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18a, 51005 Tartu
  • Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 4809
    Faculty address: 
    Narva mnt 18, 51009, Tartu
  • University Office in Tallinn
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 6600
    Faculty address: 
    Teatri väljak 3, 10143 Tallinn
  • Estates Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5137
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18a, 51005 Tartu
  • Finance Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5125
    Faculty address: 
    Jakobi 4, 51005 Tartu
  • Grant Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 6215
    Faculty address: 
    Raekoja plats 9, 51004 Tartu
  • Information Technology Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 6000, IT-help: +372 737 5500
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18a, 51005 Tartu
  • Human Resources Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5145
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18, rooms 302 and 304, 50090 Tartu
  • Internal Audit Office
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18-244, 51005 Tartu
  • Marketing and Communication Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5687
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18, rooms 102, 104, 209, 210, 50090 Tartu
  • Office of Academic Affairs
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5620
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18, 50090 Tartu
  • Procurement Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 6632
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18a, 51005 Tartu
  • Rector's Strategy Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5600
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18, 50090 Tartu
  • Student Council
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18b, 51005 Tartu
  • University of Tartu Press
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5945
    Faculty address: 
    W. Struve 1, 50091 Tartu
Other Units
  • University of Tartu Academic Sports Club
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5371
    Faculty address: 
    Ujula 4, 51008 Tartu
  • Tartu Student Village
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 740 9959
    Faculty address: 
    Narva mnt 25, 51013 Tartu
  • Tartu Students’ Club
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 730 2400
    Faculty address: 
    Kalevi 24, 51010 Tartu
  • Tartu University Hospital
    Faculty address: 
    L. Puusepa 1a, 50406 Tartu
  • University of Tartu Foundation
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5852
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18, 50090 Tartu
  • View all other units

Synthetic biology opens up a new development path for the wood industry

Instead of using it as heating material, wood waste could be used to create new values. Photo: Pixabay

The Estonian wood industry creates over a million tonnes of wood waste each year, which is mainly used as heating material. In addition to that, we have an abundance of low-value wood and pulpwood, which often do not have any application in the local industry. In business terms, this is a considerable amount of raw material that is lost to Estonian economy.

However, research institutions have the knowledge necessary for developing the technology for raising the value of wood. Estonian wood industry is mainly focused on the mechanical processing of wood, which results in the production of construction materials and wooden houses, for example. These technological solutions are already mature and relatively well-rooted in companies, as are the target markets the goods are sold to.

According to the head of the Estonian Forest and Wood Industries Association, Henrik Välja, great changes and innovations are currently happening in chemical processing of wood, which helps create new value chains. Wood is also a source for substances that could be used in the textile, cosmetics, pharmaceutical and packaging industries, for example. Unfortunately, there are only a handful of companies in Estonia processing wood chemically.

At the Core Facility for Chemistry and Bioprocessing of the University of Tartu, new technological solutions are under development, which could bring an industry to the Estonian wood sector, which is innovative, provides several times more added value than before and has a smaller ecological footprint. Wood bioprocessing uses enzymes found in cells for processing the parent compounds derived from pulp. As a result, it is possible to produce valuable fine chemicals and materials.

According to a UT professor of molecular systems biology, Mart Loog, the university’s scientists are looking for possibilities that would help obtain from microbial cell factories in an industrially productive way colourants suitable for the cosmetics industry (carotenoids), fatty acids used in the food and materials industry (linolenic acid), as well as parent compounds of anticancer drugs (betulinic acid).

Also, a method is under development for producing phenol-aldehyde resins and glues from lignin – a natural binder that lends rigidity to the wood. Compared to the traditional chemical industry, the ecological footprint of bioprocessing is significantly smaller.

When talking of innovation, the head of the executive committee of the Estonian Fund for Nature, Tarmo Tüür, finds that environmental protection and better health are important criteria, which should be set as an ever clearer goal besides economic indicators.

More value without increasing the level of logging

Last year, work was commenced at the UT Gas Fermentation Technologies lab to study how to create fine chemicals from gasified wood waste using cell factories. The lab is cooperating with the large American biotechnology enterprise, LanzaTech. “We are looking at how to use acetogenic bacteria to bind carbon monoxide, but in the future, also carbon dioxide, and as a result, produce chemicals which could be starting materials for producing biodegradable plastic, among other things,” said Loog.
Currently, Graanul Biotech OÜ, a subsidiary of Graanul Invest, is making a great developmental leap in the field of wood biorefining and is establishing a pilot plant in Imavere with novel technology for wood fractionating or dividing into particles. In this field, the company is also collaborating with the UT Core Facility for Chemistry and Bioprocessing.

“When in the times of EstFor (a company that was planning a cellulose plant near the city of Tartu – P. E.) we were saying that the technology planned there would have been 150 years old and polluting for the environment, then Imavere will have one of the most innovative plants with some of the cleanest technology,” said Loog.
The plant will produce lignin and wood sugars from low-value wood and sawdust, which can be biologically turned into various high-value fine chemicals or widely-used biomaterials, such as resins, glues and plastics. This is a good example of production with larger added value without increasing logging.

“Estonia has a great opportunity to be one of the first to take the innovative path, as these technologies have only become possible in recent times and thanks to synthetic biology. Scandinavia, where contributions have been made into wood chemistry for the last 20 years, has not yet considered this field much in their investments,” noted Loog.

Loog finds that when developing business models for bioeconomy, the easy way out of using technology that is already known and tested should be avoided.
“Since the end of the 1960s, we have a molecular biology tradition, laboratories and trained specialists in Tartu. Today, the methods of molecular biology can be used to create cells, which may produce dozens of very expensive separable chemicals during one and the same process,” explained Loog.
He added that in the traditional chemical industry, all synthesis steps would be done in separate reactors, each requiring energy and causing harm to the environment. “With the biological process, something like beer brewing takes place in the cell. The development of such technologies requires greater support for curiosity-driven science,” emphasised Loog.

New technology from science to industry

In the UT, there is a plan to establish an industry association with the Centre for Synthetic Biology, bringing together companies interested in such technological developments. “Similarly to the western Europe and North America, Estonian industry could come together in this association and contribute to the development of basic research as well as operational activities. We have a lot of free land on the Maarjamõisa campus, a detailed plan and 13 plots. Estonian bioindustry companies should pool their money and build centres for wood industry and bioeconomy research with all the important levels of research necessary for knowledge-based economy represented – from curiosity-driven research to product development,” appealed Loog. Also, an industry association creates favourable conditions for involving international companies and lays the groundwork for Estonia to develop into a hub of bioindustry.

The head of the Estonian Forest and Wood Industries Association, Henrik Välja, finds that reaching a consensus between local companies necessary for participating in a common industry association is quite difficult. In his opinion, leaders of Estonian wood industry companies are interested in innovation, but the smallness of the companies and the relatively small number of innovators in the entire sector becomes decisive in the development of new technology.
“Wood chemistry is science-heavy and requires a lot of investments, competitors are large and their research budgets may exceed the entire Estonian research funding. With such competition, developing completely new technologies is difficult for our companies,” said Välja.

As long as the development directions of companies are in strong correlation with established market patterns, change is slow to happen. The European Green Deal as well as the EU Biodiversity strategy demonstrate the will to foster the commissioning of environmentally friendly technology. The head of the executive committee of the Estonian Fund for Nature, Tarmo Tüür, pointed out that the Estonian state is not directing the wood industry purposefully towards the path of innovation, even not via funding measures. “Rather, the effect of forest policy has been the opposite. As logging conditions are relaxing increasingly, and wood is available at an affordable price and in large quantities, this does not motivate entrepreneurs to develop sustainable and smart solutions,” said Tüür.


At Paide Opinion Festival in August, Mart Loog from the University of Tartu, Rando Värnik from the Estonian University of Life Sciences, Henrik Välja from the Estonian Forest and Wood Industries Association, Tarmo Tüür from the Estonian Fund for Nature and Aavo Sõrmus from the Center of Food and Fermentation Technologies discussed how to use Estonian wood and food smarter

Author: Piret Ehrenpreis, University of Tartu Research Communication Adviser

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