A chemistry student already found his dream job during bachelor's studies

Joona Kontinen works as an innovation chemist at Sulapac, a Finnish startup, which develops biodegradable composites made of wood to replace plastic. Kontinen completed his master’s thesis while working at Sulapac.

The research presented in the thesis is part of a project that resulted in straws that contain no microplastics. The project was announced at Slush in 2018, while the product was released to the market a year later in 2019. The straw production still continues, with ever-growing demand.

From medicine to chemistry

Chemistry was the only option when Joona Kontinen applied to study at the University of Helsinki. When in his second year at general upper secondary school, he was still planning to pursue studies in medicine. Giving the matter some more thought, Kontinen realised he did not want to work as a doctor. However, he was interested in medical product development. Indeed, he wrote his bachelor’s thesis on drug vehicles at the Laboratory of Polymer Chemistry. When Kontinen became aware of the slow progress of medical product development from innovation to production, he decided to switch to materials chemistry, focusing on polymer chemistry. Conveniently, a job offer from Sulapac came at the same time.

In his summer job of 2018 as a laboratory technician in the Laboratory of Polymer Chemistry, Kontinen had the opportunity to carry out analyses related to Sulapac’s products and got to know Antti Pärssinen, innovation director and co-founder of the company, who is also a graduate of the University of Helsinki.This opened a door to the company.

Work and studies support each other

Combining a full-time job with studying can be done when there is mutual support.

“You learn better when the topics of your studies have a connection to your practical work,” Kontinen says.

This was also reflected in his examination results. During his bachelor’s studies, he passed his courses, but at the master's level he started getting top points. The compulsory minor subject studies included in the degree, though, caused him stress when his interest was already clearly directed at product development in polymer chemistry.

Soon, he will have obtained his master’s degree certificate, with a doctoral thesis as the next goal. His employee has a favourable attitude toward postgraduate studies.

Converting plastics factories into producers of biodegradable materials

Currently, Kontinen is contributing to the development of entirely novel materials that comply with current legislation.

“The law sets specific criteria for materials that come into contact with food,” Kontinen notes.

Cosmetics packaging and other products produced by Sulapac are entirely microplastics-free, and they can be disposed of using industrial composting processes. When burned, their combustion residue is cleaner than that of plastics. At the same time, their reuse is also being investigated. Sulapac has no factories of its own, and one of the criteria for its materials is that they can be utilised in production lines designed for plastics.

What is biodegradability?

Biodegradability is a sought-after feature often referred to in a rather general fashion as an unambiguous property, but what does it actually mean? Kontinen explains related concepts in his master’s thesis.

Biodegradability is subject to agreement, and limits already exist for determining the biodegradability of products. Monitoring is based on certificates awarded by private companies.

“In the literature section of my thesis, I review a range of commercial biopolymers, their synthesis, use and biodegradation. The main focus of the thesis is on the biodegradation and commercial use of various materials. Furthermore, I have extensively discussed standards, research methods and approval criteria intended for evaluating biodegradation,” says Kontinen.

The research section of the thesis focuses on the production of biodegradable polymer compounds and the characterisation of their thermomechanical properties. The goal was to create a biodegradable material whose properties would make it a commercially viable substitute for disposable plastics. The mechanical properties of the material were characterised to make the end product durable, while the rheological properties, or the flow behaviour, were characterised to enable production. To characterise the durability and thermal properties of the material, thermomechanical analyses were conducted. The thesis also involved an investigation of the biodegradation of a pure PLA/wood composite in a marine environment.

The research activities succeeded in producing a wood composite with a sufficiently rapid biodegradation rate whose mechanical properties are good enough for it to substitute for a range of disposable plastic products. In addition, currently available extrusion equipment can be used to process the material.

As it is directly connected with Sulapac’s product development, Kontinen’s master's thesis is not openly available online. The work can be read at Helsinki University Library.

Joona Kontinen’s master’s thesis: Biohajoavat polymeerit ja niiden puukomposiitit (‘Biodegradable polymers and their wood composites’). Master's Programme in Materials Research, Study Track in Polymer Chemistry, 6 July 2020