Fazer’s xylitol factory being constructed in Lahti is not only environmentally friendly but also full of cutting-edge technology. Manufacturing xylose from oat hulls is a completely new concept, and plant manager Vili Ravanko and his cooperation partners are on a tight schedule to develop the process and the required equipment. The goal is to have high-quality, Finnish xylitol available end of 2020.

The process to manufacture xylose from oat hulls is completely new and also requires the development of specific technology. Therefore, it was clear from the outset that Fazer also needed external expertise in the xylitol factory project. Vili Ravanko, plant manager of Fazer’s xylitol factory since 1 April 2019, is one of the leading experts in the separation process of sugar.

“The core of the process is chromatography, which is actually something that I have been working with throughout my career”, Ravanko says. After earning his Master of Science (Technology) degree in chemistry from the Helsinki University of Technology in Otaniemi, Espoo, Ravanko worked at Cultor, which was acquired by Danisco and, later, by Dupont. He led a technology group that studied chromatography, the separation resin matrices used in it and the application of this method on an industrial scale. His duties also took him and his family to the USA where he worked for several years, gaining experience in building facility-wide processes. “In particular, our focus was on the industrial application of chromatography and crystallisation techniques”, Ravanko says. After leaving Danisco, Ravanko worked at Kotka-based Finex Oy in Finland for eight years. The company’s main product is chromatographic separation resins customised to client needs.

“My current role at Fazer enables me to apply all aspects of my competence”, Ravanko says. “Overall, the xylitol factory is an extremely interesting but challenging project. I am excited to be part of creating something completely new”.

Nordic oats are an excellent source of xylose

Approximately 80% of xylitol manufacture consists of making xylose, which determines the quality of the end project to a large extent. Once xylose has been separated from oat hulls, the remainder of the process actually consists of increasing the concentration of xylose; in other words, separating xylose from the other components by means of various techniques. In the end, pure xylose is transformed into xylitol, usually by hydrating. The technique is the same regardless of what the original raw material is (wood, corn or coconut shell). Manufacturing xylose from oat hulls is a completely new concept, and Fazer is developing the associated technology and processes on an ongoing basis. The company has already filed several patent applications.

“Oat hulls are an excellent source of xylose”, Ravanko says. “In addition, the quality of Nordic oats is very high and the grain is clean, which makes it a unique raw material”.

What is also unique is that the oat hulls used as raw material are a side stream of Fazer’s own production. In the process, the raw material from the mill is conveyed directly to the production facility. Everything takes place within the same factory site. “Instead of us just burning the residual hulls of oats generated in the mill’s production, we first harvest the valuable substance from them”, Ravanko says.

The generation of waste has been minimised by closing all possible process cycles, since the biopower plant to be built next to the xylitol factory will produce energy for the needs of the entire factory site, using the processed oat hulls left over from xylose manufacture as its main raw material. Responsibility is inherent in all processes and technology throughout the factory, and the entire factory project supports Fazer’s responsibility strategy.

The new circular economy solution requires new technology

The xylitol factory is scheduled to open in autumn 2020, only three and a half years after the inception of the idea. Before that happens, the process must be refined, the right equipment must be selected and skilled personnel must be hired. “The schedule is tight. Since the entire process is new, our first challenge is finding the required equipment, since they are not available off the shelf”, Ravanko says.

The manufacturing process is made up of many small elements, all of which need specific process equipment. Thanks to his professional background, Ravanko already has contacts with the sector’s potential, major suppliers of equipment, but the innovation requires new technology that needs to be developed in cooperation with equipment suppliers.

Fazer is supported in the project by Finnish and international experts. “Cooperation between different parties is important in order for us to select optimal process equipment in a tight schedule”, Ravanko says. “On the other hand, it should be kept in mind that process optimisation will continue after the factory is commissioned, as we gain experience in the performance of the process on a factory scale”, Ravanko adds. Recruiting additional resources for Fazer has also begun so that when the first equipment arrive, supervisors will be on site to test and adjust them.

“Xylitol’s potential is constantly growing in the food, pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries”, Ravanko says. “End of 2020, we will have an environmentally friendly factory that offers top-quality xylitol for a variety of needs”.