Ulla Kiiski is the scientist whose team is behind the innovation that changed the course of the global fuel industry. And yet, like Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the internet, Kiiski would rather be working than posing for the cameras, more satisfied with her legacy than with fame and fortune.
Kiiski has worked for 33 years at the research center inside Neste, the Finnish oil refining company that has become the global leader in renewable fuels. Among the many patents she holds is one that sounds as unlikely today as it did 23 years ago when her team at Neste hit on it: a renewable, non-fossil fuel that can power planes, cars and boats.
Now 59, Kiiski is humble and matter-of-fact. And yet, like Berners-Lee or the scientist and inventor Nikola Tesla, it is just possible that her team’s work will one day be seen as a turning point in the human story, opening up new possibilities and striking a decisive blow against climate change.
To understand her unlikely journey to the forefront of the global move toward sustainable fuel resources, we need to look into her background, and the inspiration she takes from science, life and Finland itself.
Lessons from life
Ulla Kiiski was born in 1960 into a farming community in Liperi, near Joensuu in the North Karelia region of eastern Finland. Her parents farmed cattle and hay, and the children—she was the second-youngest of seven—were expected to help around the farm.
“Working has been an essential value throughout my life,” she says. “Our parents always believed that us children would manage if we only worked hard.”
It was in her later years of secondary school that Kiiski’s fascination with chemistry—and the journey toward her breakthrough—began. In fact, Kiiski can pinpoint it to the hour.
She remembers one particular lab assignment, in which she was asked to combine sodium and chlorine ions to make salt. “It was a revelation to witness how molecules are composed. I realized that this isn’t difficult. It’s fun and it’s fascinating!”
The pull of chemistry grew stronger on Kiiski through school, encouraged by an academically demanding teacher. “I found my teacher’s high expectations encouraging,” she says. “Setting the bar high has always come naturally to me. Always striving to do my best has guided me through my whole life.”
She went on to study chemistry at Joensuu, where she joined the research group of Tapani Pakkanen, a professor who taught physical chemistry, the study of how matter behaves on a molecular and atomic level, and how chemical reactions occur. He would go on to become an important mentor and inspiration, and Kiiski today acknowledges what she calls his “crucial” influence on her future.
Pakkanen led a dynamic team, introducing his students to his network in the chemical industry. They travelled to conferences and published articles. Under his supervision, Kiiski completed her master’s thesis in the field of catalysis.
As Kiiski neared the completion of her studies, she considered becoming a teacher as her sister had before her, but her mentor intervened. “Tapani asked me, ‘Ulla, are you certain that teaching is what you aspire to do?’,” she recalls.
So instead, she chose chemistry and postgraduate studies. “I was very ambitious from the start. I knew that as a researcher I would have multiple opportunities in the field of chemistry.”
She also recognizes the element of adventure and quest in chemistry—a prospect that still inspires her to this day. “Thanks to chemistry, the welfare of humankind has been improved substantially,” she says, enthusiastically. “Think about all the innovations in medicine and food technology, for instance. Our everyday life is intertwined with so much chemistry that it's sometimes hard to grasp.”
Pakkanen happened to know Outi Krause, the director of catalysis research at Neste, and the company gave her a grant for her postgraduate studies. That sealed her future. After two years, she had finished her degree and became a researcher at Neste’s research center .
Kiiski and her husband moved permanently to Porvoo at the beginning of 1987. She says she can’t overestimate how important a supportive partner has been to her career. “My husband quit his job because of this opportunity,” she says, admiringly. “Fortunately, he soon found work in Helsinki and we started a new chapter in our lives here.”
She nevertheless experienced a culture shock when arriving from east to southern Finland. “We north Karelians are rather talkative and open folk,” she laughs. “Neste has brought in people from all over Finland, and all over the world. But you always find something in common with your colleagues,” she says with a smile.
At the beginning of the 1990s, the world had started to change. The Cold War’s close had opened up new global agendas, and climate change was beginning to find traction as a reality. The Rio Earth Summit in 1992 showed that more action was needed. And when the world changed, so did the oil refining industry. There was a demand for renewable fuels.
At the time, Kiiski was studying catalytic processes—the ways in which molecules are shaped by catalysts. Part of her job was to compose written reports on new ventures in the field of oil refining.
In 1993, while working on a report on catalytic conversion of vegetable oils by hydrogenation, she became convinced that Neste should test this new technology. She could see the possibly outstanding properties of a new product: The renewable diesel produced with the technology would contain paraffinic hydrocarbons and no aromatics, meaning no smell, and was recognized to have beneficial properties like lower exhaust gas emissions; in short a top-quality paraffinic diesel. And she knew that Neste could utilize its existing oil refining technology and expertise in the process development.
Ensio Tukiainen, the director of research at the time, asked the still-young researcher to share her ideas. Won over by her case, he green-lit the project, and Kiiski and her colleagues started testing how catalysts would work with vegetable oils, namely rapeseed oil, known as canola oil in the US, and tall oil fatty acid.
Soon, they managed to develop a fuel combining good cold properties and a great cetane rating, the number indicating the combustion speed of diesel fuel and compression needed for ignition. Kiiski and her colleagues Outi Piirainen and Pekka Aalto filed a patent application in 1996. Kiiski remembers the day well: It was February 5, the day commemorating Finland’s national poet, Johan Ludvig Runeberg.
While the significance of the moment was not lost on the team, their celebrations were typically modest. “When the patent application was accepted, someone asked, ‘Do we get cake?’,” Kiiski says with a laugh.
The world catches up
The testing continued after the patent, but there was a break in development, and the project did not advance to production. “It was the late 1990s, and the time was just not ripe,” Kiiski says. At the time Neste was also contemplating the possibilities of first-generation bio diesels.
In the meantime, Kiiski started working in the product development team. But as the 2000s dawned, the world changed again: The pressure to reduce carbon emissions became more and more urgent as the data on climate change began to stack up. “Neste was at a crossroads and decided to take a bold decision toward manufacturing sustainable fuels,” Kiiski remembers. This restarted the project around the innovation that Kiiski and the team had patented.
The EU’s Transportation Biofuels Directive in 2003 obliged nations to replace 5.75% of all transportation fossil fuels with biofuels by 2010. The revised 2009 directive introduced a binding target of 10% by 2020. The Finnish national target is even more ambitious.
These obligations drove changes across the whole energy industry, and in 2002, Kiiski was working again on the NEXBTL, the technology she and her team had helped to create. Now she had an opportunity to study the fuel properties of this remarkable product.
It was time for Neste to take a calculated risk—to move the company in a fresh direction by investing in this new technology to create renewable fuels. This was something that was noisily criticized at the time, by investors, employees and customers alike, but a risk that is now widely recognized as one worth taking.
In 2007, the company opened a brand-new unit in Porvoo refinery, where Kiiski was working. Its purpose was to make Neste MY Renewable Diesel, 100% from various wastes and residues as well as vegetable oils. In addition, it reduces greenhouse gas emissions by up to 90%.
It turned out to be a smart move. Within a decade, Neste has transformed its operations to become the world’s largest producer of renewable diesel. It has made investments worth billions in renewable products, building refineries in Rotterdam and Singapore. In fact, renewable diesel now brings in the majority of the company’s revenue.
Kiiski says she feels “very happy and proud ”of the work she has done in Neste. Her ambitious nature has thrived in the “innovative work environment” and with the responsibilities she has been given. “To think that it all began more than 20 years ago, and we have succeeded in creating a renewable fuel that now powers even aviation traffic,” she says, beaming. “It’s such a fantastic feeling to be a part of that.”
“My work has taught me that you have to be determined, persistent and to never lose your faith.”
Kiiski is anxious to emphasize that an enormous amount of work from an entire team of people across the organization led to the success. “I would never call this my breakthrough alone. None of us achieves anything on our own. We need each other’s views and skills.”
The power of curiosity
Still, Kiiski is not satisfied with just one successful product. She says she prefers “handling multiple projects at the same time,” and has her sights set on new challenges, further breakthroughs.Within the piles of paper in her office are studies and reports that hint at the direction in which her thoughts are taking her. Some are on recycling waste plastics to fuels and chemicals, or on future raw materials such as algae oil and lignocellulose.
“Our work is never finished,” she says, recalling the school student who believed in aiming high and reaching the mark. “We set ourselves ambitious goals—and we are constantly pioneering new territories in our field.”
Kiiski has also seen the industry take steps in equality. As a young woman, she stood out in a male-dominated industry. Neste had many women on staff in Finland, but not overseas.
“There were international conferences where the speaker could greet us with ‘Lady and gentlemen,’ as I was the only woman in the room,” she laughs. “I’m really glad this imbalance has changed over the years.”
She admits that there is a great responsibility for the current generation to contain climate change. And yet she sees it as an opportunity, not as a burden. “Technology is inherently evolving,” she says. “It can always be developed more.”She firmly believes that humankind will come up with solutions—and that chemistry has a central role to play. She calls for politicians to listen to experts and make wise, informed decisions. “Climate change has no borders. Collaboration shouldn’t, either.”
Giving up is a sentiment Kiiski barely recognizes. ”I think that is a part of my Karelian spirit. We have lived in borderlands between east and west, and somehow, had to survive. Perhaps resilience against difficult odds runs in my blood,” she reflects.
Asked about her legacy outside of the potentially world-changing consequences of a completely fossil-fuel-free diesel, Kiiski says she wants to encourage curiosity—for her, ”the most important characteristic of a researcher.” She pauses. ”We should try to resist rushing things and take time to think about what we are doing—and immerse ourselves in literature and books.”
In her spare time, Kiiski pours herself into Finnish war history. “I have rummaged in the bush and got stuck in old barbed wire while visiting battlegrounds,” she recalls.
Her interest extends to her heritage as well. She is a member of the Ruskeala village society, where her father lived as a child. After retiring, she is contemplating settling into genealogy as a hobby. She chuckles when she mentions that she even considered choosing history as her major. Chemistry was still the most appealing alternative.
“History is a never-ending interest. I’ll never get the feeling that I’ve cracked it completely. That is why I like it.”
How fitting that this woman, torn between a love of chemistry and history, should end up making history with her work.