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Grön omställning - Här växer ny teknik toppbild

Where new technology grows

Published: 10 October 2022

– Forest is not an agricultural crop, it takes many years before it can be used in industrial processes. With respect for the time it takes to grow forests, we need to develop methods to use the raw material as efficiently as possible. That is, we need to use everything available to produce new smart and sustainable products.

Says Ulrika Rova, professor of Biochemical process engineering at Luleå University of Technology. In the research project Prebiotics from forests and seas she worked on developing a fractionation method where you can separate the three main components of the forests raw material and then use each component to develop new areas of use. As health products, for example prebiotics that can promote a healthy intestinal flora, and vegan food supplements.

How is it done? The fractionation method divides the forests raw material into three components: hemicellulose, lignin and cellulose, where the last is what the researchers have worked with when it comes to health-promoting products. From the cellulose, we can produce prebiotics, which is a carbohydrate that we humans cannot break down – but it can act as an energy source to promote the growth of good bacteria in our intestinal and stomach flora. In the project, we have worked first and foremost to find optimal conditions to get the purest cellulose possible. And we spent a lot of time developing a recipe to use the right type and amount of enzymes to break down the cellulose into cellobiose (the potential prebiotic), says Ulrika Rova.

– When it was done, we collaborated with Essum, a company that works with the development and production of probiotics that can add extra health functions to foods. Our tests with Essum showed that the cellobiose we produced from forest raw materials had a very good prebiotic potential. That is, it can be used to increase the growth of good bacteria found in our stomach and intestinal flora, explains Ulrika Rova.

Omega-3 with the help of the forest?

The research group is also very interested in developing food supplements that are also suitable for vegans. One example is omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for, among other things, cardiovascular function and the nervous system. The same initial fractionation process is used for the forest raw material, but here the focus is on breaking down the cellulose into glucose which can be used as a growth source for marine microorganisms.

Instead of extracting omega-3 fatty acids from fish, microalgae that produce omega-3 fatty acids is a more environmentally friendly and sustainable alternative for our marine ecosystem. When you eat fatty fish like salmon, it is not the salmon that has produced these fatty acids. It comes from plankton and microalgae that the fish eat and which synthesise these very substances. It is very interesting if you can offer a non-animal food supplement for vegans.

– Our forest is a very exciting raw material, which can be used for new innovative products. The dream is to continue to find new solutions for sustainable development where we take advantage of the potential that exists in our forest biomass, says Ulrika Rova

The research project Prebiotics from forest and sea , which ended in 2021, was led by Luleå University of Technology, and was carried out in close collaboration with Essum AB, SLU, Marine Feed AB, which grows sea urchins, for the production of environmentally friendly fish feed, Sveaskog AB, the communication agency Dyrka AB and the business development company LTU Business. The project was financed by Vinnova, the Energy Agency and Formas via the strategic innovation program BioInnovation and participating actors.

Photo: Tomas Bergman
Paul Christakopoulos, Professor of Biochemical Process Engineering, Anthi Karnaouri, Researcher Biochemical Process Technology, Ulrika Rova, Professor of Biochemical Process Engineering and Leonidas Matsakas, Researcher in Biochemical Process Technology at Luleå University of Technology Photo: Tomas Bergman
Ulrika Rova

Ulrika Rova, Professor

Phone: +46 (0)920 491315
Organisation: Biochemical Process Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Department of Civil, Environmental and Natural Resources Engineering