Column: The pulp mill of the future

Alongside economies of scale, the Finnish pulp industry will have to develop additional competitive factors for the future, says Metsä Fibre’s Niklas von Weymarn, VP, Research.

Pulp mills have undergone successive phases of progress over the decades. Although they were the source of dozens of products in the era before the rise of petrochemicals in the middle of the last century, the arrival of cheap oil and petrochemicals caused a major shift in business conditions. Only a few sulfite-based operations nowadays provide a throwback to those times. There are no longer any production plants of this kind in Finland, and instead over the last century the kraft process has gradually become the basis for huge manufacturing installations with output measured in millions of tonnes. Besides pulp and bioenergy, our mills now produce only two co-products: tall oil and turpentine.

Business conditions in the pulp and paper industry are once again in the throes of change; not this time due to petrochemicals, but to the digital revolution and globalization. This shift in the forest-based industries became visible in the national economy of Finland back in 2001, when over a century of domestic growth in turnover finally came to an end. While there had indeed been some minor setbacks on the way, such as the recession of the early 1990s, it was only in 2001 that a clear leveling out occurred. This was unfortunately followed by a definite downturn due to the financial crisis in 2008. Although the current wave of change has a particular impact on business conditions for paper manufacturing, will this also extend to the Finnish pulp industry?

I am not the best person to evaluate pulp market trends, especially in a customer magazine, but as a chemical engineer I might venture to say that global demand for pulp is still increasing. On the other hand, changes are also occurring in the supply of this product, with substantial new capacity now coming on stream, especially in eucalyptus processing.

The Finnish pulp industry has succeeded so far by leading the charge towards greater economies of scale, supported by good domestic timber logistics - meaning a developed infrastructure, efficient use of wood biomass by division into log, fiber and energy fractions, and so on. The growth in demand has nevertheless focused on the Far East, with eucalyptus pulp correspondingly changing the supply range. Alongside economies of scale and advanced timber logistics, the Finnish pulp industry will now have to develop additional competitive factors for the future, such as new products.

While conventional pulp mill emissions have been closely monitored for many years, the threat of climate change has now added carbon dioxide to the checklist, both as an emission and with reference to carbon sinks. Energy efficiency will be stressed increasingly in a world where energy costs twice as much in the European Union as in many competitor economies such as the USA. For decades already we have sought to optimize resource efficiency through efficient use of our raw materials, i.e. of wood, water and various chemicals.

Resource efficiency can, however, also be optimized by efficiently processing wood raw material into value-added products, and so we turn to new products of a pulp mill. Could the pulp mills of the future manufacture not only their current output, but also other value-added products, thereby maximizing value returns on the raw material used? We have already seen a scramble to achieve such advances in many fields, such as biocomposites and nanocellulose, but whether these breakthroughs will be economically sustainable is another question entirely. There is no easy way to find a replacement for pulp, even as some people consider radically new cooking processes. The "Two teams" competition recently organized by the Confederation of European Paper Industries (CEPI) was won by a proposal to separate most of the lignin from wood chips using an entirely novel chemical process at a temperature of less than 50 degrees.

Come what may, we shall continue to operate as part of a value chain. This means that new processes and products will have to be developed in partnership with present and future customers in a way that does not disrupt our current value chains, which nicely sums up the challenge facing our R&D staff.

NIKLAS VON WEYMARN
VP, RESEARCH
METSÄ FIBRE OY

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