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Bioproducts still seeking buyers

Scientists know that thousands of products can be made from trees. Traditional forest products only scratch the surface of what is possible. But, of all those non-traditional possibilities, only a handful are likely to become marketable...

June 1, 2013  By Pulp & Paper Canada

Scientists know that thousands of products can be made from trees. Traditional forest products only scratch the surface of what is possible. But, of all those non-traditional possibilities, only a handful are likely to become marketable products.
The potential market for bio-based products has received much attention in recent years, as negative feelings grow regarding fossil fuels and their derivatives, and government policies favor “renewables.” So far, the much vaunted bio-economy only intersects with the pulp and paper sector at a few points: lignin, cellulose nanomaterials and green electricity. A handful of Canadian companies have captured an early lead in these markets.
Full steam ahead for lignin
For lignin, commercial prospects have taken a leap forward now that North America has a new source for large quantities of this material. Domtar Corporation successfully started-up a commercial-scale lignin separation plant at its Plymouth, North Carolina, mill in February. This is the first new source of kraft-derived lignin to come on the market in more than 25 years. Domtar is targeting the product at a wide range of industrial applications as a bio-based alternative to the use of petroleum and other fossil fuels.
A kraft lignin separation process generally removes some lignin from the mill’s black liquor stream, and then returns the lignin-lean liquor to the mill. Domtar is using Metso’s LignoBoost process to produce its BioChoice™ lignin, at a targeted rate of 75  tons a day.
“LignoBoost has generated a great deal of interest in the pulp and paper industry globally and this is a major breakthrough for all parties involved in this first-of-a-kind project,” says Gene Christiansen, a senior manager with Metso’s power business line for North America.
There’s been a “fantastic” amount of interest in the kraft lignin, from Europe, the U.S. and Canada, says Bruno Marcoccia, Domtar’s director of research and development. The company has been shipping both test and commercial-scale quantities of lignin for product development trials.
Marcoccia says the existing market for lignin is about 1 million tons, mostly in the form of lignosulfonates from sulphite pulp mills. There’s a small amount of kraft lignin available to the market, but not much. “This plant,” he says, “represents a very significant increase in the total amount of kraft lignin available in the market.”
A green, renewable alternative
“It’s the nature of the commercial applications that’s really quite exciting,” Marcoccia continues. “What gets very exciting is the applications for displacement of fossil fuels and fossil fuel derivatives.”
Understandably, even the very simplest of applications has a natural cycle for testing and evaluation, Marcoccia notes. He predicts the world will see the emergence of non-traditional products made with lignin with 18 months or two years.
“The possibilities for making a real difference in terms of offering manufacturers a bio-based alternative to the use of petro-chemicals is truly exciting,” says Hasan Jameel, a professor in North Carolina State University’s Department of Forest Biomaterials. “This is a big win for sustainability on two counts – Domtar improves the efficiency of its pulp-making process, and at the same time, the market gets a reliable, high-quality source of this underused material with so much potential.”
In a recent paper describing FPInnovations’ LignoForce™ lignin removal system, Lamfeddal Kouisni listed the potential uses for lignin: adhesive in wood products, polyol in polyurethane foams, chemicals, thermoplastic composites, packaging, carbon fibre, carbon black, activated carbon, dispersant/flocculant, epoxy resins, adhesive in foundry resins, adhesive in pellets.
During the early months of production, the Plymouth mill was using the lignin as a fuel within mill operations. “It is such a good fuel that the operators are delighted with it,” Marcoccia comments. “They’ve been using it to enhance boiler operations.”
In Ontario, a slightly different process is being used to produce lignin at the Resolute Forest Products mill in Thunder Bay. The LignoForce demo plant is being operated by FPInnovations, and is capable of producing 12.5 kg/h of lignin.
Tom Browne, program manager, biorefinery, with FPInnovations, explains that the LignoForce process challenges conventional wisdom about lignin separation by incorporating oxidation. This reduces carbon dioxide demand significantly compared with conventional lignin separation methods. Carbon dioxide can be about 50% of the operating cost of lignin separation. Browne says the oxidation also increases filtration rates for the lignin, and reduces acid requirements during precipitation and washing.
Details of the LignoForce process were presented for the first time at PaperWeek Canada 2013. The process is now ready to be commercialized. Browne says a number of mills have expressed strong interest, and discussions are ongoing.
Browne anticipates that the commercial supply of lignin available from Domtar will be a boon for the market. “It’s a good thing. There’s always been this underlying question around lignin applications: if I can’t buy lignin, what’s the point?
“Someone has to take the risk and be first. Then you’ll see, a lot of buyers will want two suppliers. So I expect this will spur demand.”
Browne says the high oil prices of the near past have focused the attention of the chemical industry on alternative feedstocks. “I think there’s room for lignin and other wood-based chemicals to undercut or at least to match that [petrochemical feedstock] price.”
Browne says there are customers already willing to buy lignin for traditional applications, but getting lignin into new applications, or getting new wood-based chemicals into a product is much more challenging.
“But the ‘green’ cachet is not to be underestimated,” he adds.
A high-purity lignin is also being produced by Lignol in Burnaby, B.C. The company recently achieved a commercial breakthrough with a contract to supply lignin for use in thermoplastic compounds. Lignol’s modified solvent-based pre-treatment technology allows the rapid, high-yield conversion of cellulose to ethanol and the production of biochemical co-products, including high purity HP-L™ lignin.
Tiny product seeking big market
On the cellulose nanomaterials front, the situation is much the same. Trial quantities of cellulose-based nano-scale materials have been available for some time, but securing commercial applications for a previously untried product has proven challenging.
CelluForce, a joint venture of Domtar and FPInnovations, is an early leader in the production of cellulose nanocrystals (formerly known as nanocrystalline cellulose). After about 18 months of production, CelluForce has built up enough inventory to temporarily cease manufacturing but continues its business development activities.
In Alberta, another pilot plant for
cellulose nanocrystals (CNC) is nearing completion at the Edmonton site of the research organization Alberta Innovates Technology Futures.
“We’ve been interested in CNC for a number of years,” says Steve Price, executive director, Alberta Innovates BioSolutions. But, he says Alberta Innovates was never interested in a facility as large as the Celluforce demo site. The aim, he says, is only to have enough CNC to act a feedstock for CNC trial applications.
The Alberta Innovates facility will use an acid hydrolysis process, similar to that developed by FPInnovations. The plant was going through commissioning in April, and a few small technical issues need to be resolve
d, says Price
“We are starting to see interest from other elements of the engineering community,” he notes. “It’s going to happen. There will be more investment in CNC research.
“It’s slow to grow, but I do believe we’re on the threshold of an application boom.”
One promising avenue for CNC is drilling mud (drilling fluid), a viscous fluid mixture that is used in oil and gas drilling operations to suspend cuttings, lubricate and cool the drill bit, and stabilize the well bore.
According to Price, trials of a drilling mud application are expected to proceed this season. Success in this application would spark a demand for large quantities of CNC.
It’s been a long, hard road for those companies and people involved in building new markets for forest-based chemicals. “Are we there yet?” everyone is asking. The answer is no, but we’re close.

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