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Using a natural chemical found in rhubarbs, this startup is replacing fossil fuels in everything from sunscreen to paint

Between 2022 and 2032, the market for biocomposites is expected to grow an impressive 16%, rising from a value of $25 billion in 2021 to $128 billion in 2032. The reason for the rise is the surging demand for alternatives to fossil fuel plastics in everything from construction and automotive industries to health and beauty. 

Oil and gas find their way into every aspect of our lives, whether it be the fossil fuels on our faces due to petrochemicals in sunscreen and skin creams or the PFAS added to mascara and lipstick to make them water-resistant. They’re also found in in our homes due to fossil fuels in paint, and a myriad of other household items spanning from crayons, coffee makers, and computer keyboards to perfumes, pillows, and pajamas to tennis rackets, tires, and toothpaste. 

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, petrochemicals make over 6,000 everyday products and high-tech devices possible, using ingredients like ethylene, propylene, acetylene, and a bunch of other -enes. In short, a fossil fuel-free world goes far beyond electricity and power. When it comes to everyday necessities, we have a lot of work to do. 

As the market for biocomposites — biobased alternatives to petroleum in products — rises, scientists, startups, and investors are working toward a sustainable future. There are many big players in the burgeoning biocomposite market, including some that have been around for the last two decades like FlexForm Technologies, based in Indiana to Germany’s Technaro

Newer startups in the field are using everything from mycelium (aka fungus roots) like Albany-based Evocative, augmented wood like Paris-based Woodoo, to pulp like Swedish circular fashion company Renewcell

Pulp, aka cellulose, is a common biocomposite ingredient, and one new startup, FineCell is throwing its hat into the growing industry, combining the well-known cellulose, with a natural chemical, oxalic acid, which is found in plants like rhubarb. 

“The world is scrambling to replace fossil-based materials with sustainable ones,” Peter Axegård, CEO and co-owner of FineCell, said in a statement. “Our product, based on softwood pulp from Nordic forests, gives many industries an alternative to the components they are currently using.” 

According to the company, what makes them different from the dozens of other cellulose-based startups is the fact that their fossil fuel alternative is not only 100% biobased, but light to ship, and requires 80–90% less energy to manufacture than its competitors. 

Recently, the startup announced a €1 million ($1,094,995) round led by Metsä Group’s innovation arm, Metsä Spring, as well as EIT InnoEnergy. 

“Metsä Spring has seen the potential in our innovation, and due to their know-how in planning, constructing, and operating production plants, including pilots and demos, and their access to the raw material linked to their ambition to upgrade Nordic wood, they were the perfect choice to support us as we move forward,” Axegård said of the investment. 

According to FineCell, which is a spin-out from the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, its material, CellOx, can easily carry other ingredients, which makes it a great binding agent and petroleum stand-in for both personal care products, paint, and 3D-bioprinting. The startup will offer both a transparent hydrogel and powder form of CellOx for a diversity of applications. 

“Our goal is to revolutionize industries by replacing fossil-based materials with our biobased alternatives. This funding propels us into the next phase, and we can’t wait to make a significant impact on the products shaping our daily lives,” Axegård said.

By the end of this year, FineCell aims to have the design of its demo plant ready. By 2025, the startup plans to begin larger-scale test production, and finally, by 2027, it's looking to launch full commercial production. The funding will be used to continue researching material applications, engage with potential customers, and finalize its demo production blueprint.

“We’ve been following FineCell for some time and are delighted to now be part of their journey. For us, all technologies that convert softwood pulp into added-value products are of interest,” Niklas von Weymarn, CEO of Metsä Spring said in a statement. 

“This technology and product clearly stand out, making it especially interesting,” he added. “ The FineCell technology is still young. At this stage, we do not yet know all the directions that this technology platform might take us.”

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