The University of Tartu and Graanul Biotech, which belongs to the Graanul Invest Group, will join forces to create a unique platform for training leading specialists who correspond to companies’ wishes and profiles and for cooperation on product development. According to the cooperation agreement, a doctoral student from the University of Tartu will study the properties of wood-derived lignin in his doctoral thesis and cooperate with Graanul Biotech in order to develop the final commercial product.
According to University of Tartu Vice-Rector for Research Kristjan Vassil, contemporary wood chemistry and bioprocessing allows local bioresources to be valorised into final products with great additional value, but this has yet to gain ground in Estonia. “The university wants to use its research competence to help companies, but we also expect significant support from the state for developing Estonian wood chemistry and bioprocessing,” said Vassil. Estonia has certain technical wood processing capabilities – for instance, we are one of the largest exporters of wood houses in Europe – but wood chemistry and bioprocessing present the perfect opportunity to move towards an economic model that offers greater added value.
The doctoral project will be carried out at the Wood Chemistry and Bioprocessing Core Laboratory, which was established on the basis of the University of Tartu Institute of Technology and Institute of Chemistry and the Estonian Centre for Synthetic Biology. The core laboratory mainly focuses on chemical and biotechnological valorising technology for wood and biomass and optimising industrial processes.
Graanul Biotech OÜ is in the process of establishing a unique plant for wood fractionation (disintegration into primary particles) in Estonia, one of the main products of which is hydrolysis lignin. This lignin has many applications and can be used in resins, glues, oils, plastics, construction materials and more.
In the course of the development work, doctoral student Kait Kaarel Puss is planning to optimise the stages of lignin processing and to obtain a comprehensive overview of the impact of industrial processing methods on the properties of lignin. The applied research plan of his doctoral thesis involves a range of technological solutions for studying the properties of wood-derived lignin and cooperation with the company in order to develop a marketable final product.
Puss’ supervisors, University of Tartu Researcher of Organic Chemistry Siim Salmar and Professor of Molecular Systems Biology Mart Loog, expect the initiative to be a success: there is already a plan to launch similar special doctoral programmes and industrial projects in cooperation with other companies. Puss’ supervisor in the company is Peep Pitk, R&D Manager of Graanul Invest.
“We are really pleased to have found a partner in the University of Tartu who sees wood valorsiation in innovative value chains as a clear priority and who is prepared to take real steps to facilitate cooperation with companies via applied research,” said Pitk. According to Pitk, the first clearly defined cooperation project is a step in the right direction because it presents a good opportunity to include the latest results of world-class research in product development at an early stage and thus increase competitiveness on the market for innovative materials.
“Companies which are interested in doctoral programmes that allow you to kill two birds with one stone – to conduct research that is necessary for product development and to train leading specialists who match the company’s profile – are always welcome to negotiate with us,” said Loog. He added that the University of Tartu is also planning to cooperate with the labs of TalTech and the Estonian University of Life Sciences in order to expand its technological and scientific capabilities.