VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland is currently researching and developing the potential for producing birch bark-based products in Eastern Finland in association with Savonlinnan yrityspalvelut Oy and local companies. According to VTT, birch bark compounds offer a wealth of business opportunities because about half of the weight of birch outer bark consists of betulin and fatty acids of suberin.
Betulin is a water-repellent and pure white terpene compound with a rigid structure and high melting point which make it suitable for use in the production of polymers, resins and coatings. Suberin is a fatty acid compound with water-repellent and lubricating properties that make it an appealing industrial raw material for polymers, resins and lubricants.
According to VTT, betulin and suberin compounds can replace pine oil and resin in techno-chemical products like paints, glues, inks and rubber, and they can also be used in the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries. VTT is also researching the use of compounds made from betulin as antibodies for viruses, protozoa and bacteria as well as in cancer treatment. In cell culture experiments carried out at VTT, the most potent betulin compounds were highly effective at preventing the growth of microbes and cancer cells.
At the moment, birch bark is mainly combusted for the production of heat and electricity. At sawmills and pulp plants, birch logs are debarked mechanically in large drums. As a result, birch bark is available in great quantities in Finland. According to VTT’s preliminary calculations, the production costs of betulin and suberin compounds could be close to those of fractions produced from raw pine oil when the extraction plant is located at a birch plywood mill.