Today, hundreds of millions tons of fossil-based raw materials are still being used in common industrial products. For example: about 15 million tons of highly CO2-intensive carbon black and silica are used annually to reinforce rubbers and plastics in tyres, hoses, sealing systems and other rubber and plastic applications. Due to the growing impact of climate change, industries are intensively looking for more sustainable business alternatives.
For them, UPM Biochemicals has now created a new-to-the-world solution that claims to have the potential to revolutionise an entire industry. The Renewable Functional Fillers (RFF) combine superior environmental and technical performance with substantially lower weight and higher purity in a cost-effective manner. These 100% wood-based fillers will soon be produced in the biorefinery currently under construction in Leuna, Germany. When they enter the market, they will significantly reduce the carbon footprint of a broad variety of rubber and plastic products.
Christian Hübsch has been involved in the development of RFF at UPM since the very beginning. Now, he is overseeing the implementation of the concept at full scale and the release of the new product onto the market in his role as Director Sales & Marketing at UPM Biochemicals.
What is RFF – and what can it do?
UPM BioMotion™ RFF are a patent-protected material that is a genuine world first.
More precisely: It is a truly sustainable functional filler that simultaneously gives rubber compounds greater elasticity and strength. As a 100% wood-based product, it can achieve the same performance level as fossil-based fillers. With a density of only 1.35 g/cm3 it’s also up to 25% lighter compared to traditional filler systems.
It’s renewable and long-term biodegradable, thermally stable and meets the highest purity requirements (in terms of sulphur content). Plus, it’s free of carcinogenic PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), making it a safe solution to produce products that come into contact with human skin. But the biggest unique selling proposition is that it combines a unique performance profile with an outstandingly low environmental footprint.
What makes its footprint so exceptional?
RFF is more than just a product – this new filler marks a solution for urgent industry needs and can be a real game-changer, as it will enable a radical step forwards in the sustainability performance of rubber and plastic products in a variety of end uses. The two materials that RFF can replace best are carbon black and precipitated silica. Both are highly CO2-intensive during production, non-renewable and difficult to recycle.
According to our calculations, RFFs have an over 90% lower CO2-footprint than industrial carbon black. RFFs help to reduce the content of both carbon black and silica drastically. When used in combination with bio-based rubbers and plasticisers, they enable final compounds to contain up to 85% renewable substances. The weight savings are a strong additional value add, especially in the automotive industry, where lower weight means better mileage, lower costs and a further reduction of CO₂ emissions.
In which industries can RFF be used?
RFFs are suitable for use in a broad range of elastomers, thermoplastic compounds and thermoplastic elastomers in numerous industries such as automotive, construction, flooring, footwear or entertainment. In the automotive industry, for example, carbon black is applied in sealing profiles, hoses, and fittings — not to mention the tyres, with industrial carbon black constituting around one third of their component materials. Profiles even consist of around 50% industrial carbon black. Here, RFFs can improve the CO2 balance by almost half.
Does the carbon footprint apply to the entire value chain?
Our LCA will cover the RFF lifecycle from cradle to gate, i.e. from the resource extraction until transportation to the customer. The end-usage cases for RFF are quite diverse, making it difficult to obtain reliable data for usage and end-of-life footprints. However, several factors will contribute to significant progress in these phases, for example the lower weight.
Will the performance profile and mechanical properties be compromised by sustainability benefits?
On the contrary! In addition to its exceptionally low environmental footprint, RFFs combine a number of outstanding properties – for example, the product offers a particularly high surface area per weight and therefore very high mechanical strength with the same elasticity.
And it’s 100% electrically non-conductive (<2000 μS/cm), which effectively prevents electrochemical corrosion when applied in rubber formulations that are in direct contact with light metals like magnesium and aluminium. This will result in longer product lifetimes and it enables further weight savings, especially in automotive applications.
But of course, RFF cannot be a drop-in alternative. For industrial use, the composition of each rubber compound must be carefully optimised. What we can already state with great confidence: There is a high probability that an RFF-based compound can be developed for each application area, that meets even stringent performance requirements.
UPM is developing the specific RFF applications to support our customers' product development. What are the advantages of this approach?
For us, it is particularly important to directly support our customers in making their compound development as fast and straightforward as possible. To achieve this, we closely collaborate with all our customers in our recently opened Rubber Lab in Leuna.
Together, we use our compounding and testing lab to share our own resources and experiences, to exchange ideas and also to learn from each other. After all, the aim is to perfect our new product quickly and effectively. We go through the same three stages with all our customers: In the laboratory phase, we test in small quantities, before moving on to testing on an industrial scale with trial batches and pilot tests. Then we go into pre-production and, finally, start regular production.
What about market readiness and initial interim results of the collaboration?
We have now completed the pre-series phase with several customers. We are working with leading manufacturers in the automotive industry, but also with companies from mechanical rubber goods, flooring, and footwear sectors. We are working closely together to develop customised solutions that inspire a new generation of sustainable consumer products.
To what extent can RFF help such manufacturers solve acute problems?
Many industries have very ambitious sustainability targets and are urgently seeking solutions based on renewable materials with optimised environmental performance. We can provide them with an alternative to fossil-based materials that is fit for the future. With RFF, our partners will be able to take a step towards transforming their products and becoming truly sustainable.
Where will RFF be produced?
We are currently building a highly modern, first-of-its-kind biorefinery in Leuna, Germany. The facility is scheduled to begin producing RFF by the end of 2023. Many chemical companies are located at the site, which offers an optimal infrastructure, favourable transport routes and proximity to raw materials and customers alike due to its central location.
Our UPM Leuna refinery is also the first in the world to use special on-site processing technologies, for example for beechwood from regional forests, as well as residues from sawing industry. Annual capacity is expected to be around 220,000 metric tons.
UPM has so far been known as one of the world’s leading pulp and paper manufacturers. Why are you investing in new products such as biochemicals?
We have seen that our core competence insourcing and processing wood, proven over 150 years, is proving to be a great advantage for the production of new forestry-based materials and chemicals. At the same time, we are seeing a growing demand for renewable materials to help mitigate the dramatic consequences of climate change.
Our activities are another strong manifestation of UPM’s transformation to reach out beyond pulp and paper and extend our value chains into new innovative businesses such as biochemicals, fully in line with our company purpose ‘We create a future beyond fossils’.