With roots in forest – She develops materials of future

Chalmers University of Technology

​Anette Larsson sees the power in working interdisciplinarity. She is Professor in Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, Pharmaceutical Technology and Director of the FibRe Centre of Excellence, where academia and industry will find synergies and develop the materials of the future from the forest. Mostly, this involves replacing fossil raw materials with renewable ones. ​”A university needs a tapestry of different skills to solve difficult challenges. People with depth and breadth in their research and the ability to apply knowledge – but we also need people who are interested in solving everyday problems”, says Anette Larsson when we meet to talk about the newly launched FiBre competence centre.

Here contributes Chalmers’ areas of advanced and the various centres to new and cross-border collaborations in a variety of fields. They also attract young researchers, for example, through Chalmers’ major calls for proposals that attract expertise from all over the world.

“In the beginning, cross-border collaborations don’t pay off directly because you have different perspectives and speak other languages, so it’s not always rewarded, but in the long run it’s perhaps the best way to solve major societal challenges”, says Anette Larsson, when we meet to talk about the newly launched competence centre FibRe.

FibRe is a Vinnova-funded centre with two academic partners, Chalmers and KTH, the Royal Institute of Technology, and some twenty industrial companies and public organisations. The aim is to build a solid competence to enable a transition from fossil-based thermoplastics to fully bio-based equivalents.

Her main interest as a researcher today is partly rooted in the environment, she grew up. Anette Larsson comes from a small village – Hackvads parish in Närke.

“My upbringing has influenced how I act. There was a caring in the village. My mother and father were farmers, so my background is not academic”, says Anette Larsson, who was among the first to leave the village for higher studies.

In 1986, the journey took her to Chalmers University of Technology and the Chemistry and Chemical Engineering programme. Nine years later, she completed her PhD in Physical Chemistry with the thesis DNA Electrophoresis: DNA Electrophoresis: Optical Probing and Microscopic Imaging to Understand Separation Mechanisms. She then moved on to industry and Astra Zeneca before returning to Chalmers in 2003.

“My research is about materials from nature. My dad likes that and he thought it was amusing when my Wallenberg PhD student Roujin Ghaffari and I came home and took down a spruce tree for the PhD student to study. Knowing where the tree grew and then studying it is a bit special,” says Anette Larsson.

Looking at the forest in terms of research and use is part of the work at Chalmers. This could include new medicines and replacing fossil materials such as plastics and textiles with renewable ones.

Anette Larsson is also active in the Scouts, where the community and interaction with nature and trees are strong. Trees are essential to where they stand and what happens to them and other crops afterwards.

“There are many stakeholders in FibRe. The common societal challenge we want to meet is to phase out fossil products long-term and reduce the carbon footprint”, says Anette Larsson. Doing this requires expertise.

Within the centre, which started in 2020, academia collaborates with industry.

“For this to become a reality, we need to include the industry’s expertise and important industrial aspects of scaling up. Today I met with Nouryon, Stora Enso, Chalmers and KTH on our analysis of the world around us. Yet, when we look around, we find no one else doing what we are doing”, says Anette Larsson, who also emphasises the collaboration with KTH, Royal Institute of Technology.

“Half of the researchers come from KTH, and we bring the expertise needed to achieve our goals.”

One of the main reasons FibRe was established was the long-standing collaboration between Chalmers and KTH within the Wallenberg Wood Science Center.

“We knew and trusted each other, so it was just a case of digging in and saying: “Let’s do it,” says Anette Larsson.

Sweden is investing heavily in research into cellulose, hemicelluloses and lignin, which are found in large quantities in wood and plants. Today, more than 90% of all plastic materials are fossil-based. Research within FibRe focuses on investigating and developing knowledge that can help replace fossil-based thermoplastic materials with lignocellulosic materials that have been minimally modified.

“Our long-term goal is to create circular materials with the same freedom of shape and processability as thermoplastics. We try to think before we design new materials: what makes a big impact – can we do it with less energy and chemicals? This is complex,” says Anette Larsson. The researchers use a range of advanced techniques, such as X-ray and neutron scattering techniques, and new ways to modify wood and wheat straw fibres chemically.

Sometimes when you listen to the debate, it sounds as if the forest should be enough for everything.

“Right now, we are taking out less forest than the growth of forest in Sweden. However, we should take out raw forest materials with our heads in the game and not forget the natural values or mismanage nature,” says Anette Larsson.

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