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Growing With Alberta’S Pulp and Paper Industry


December 1, 2000
By Pulp & Paper Canada
The laboratory calender stack was installed as part of a $2.8 million project to expand the ARC's pulp and paper research capabilities.

Coinciding with the growth of the pulp and paper industry in Alberta, the Alberta Research Council’s (ARC) work with the industry has grown by leaps and bounds. It is all the more remarkable consideri…

Coinciding with the growth of the pulp and paper industry in Alberta, the Alberta Research Council’s (ARC) work with the industry has grown by leaps and bounds. It is all the more remarkable considering the ARC only started its work with the industry in 1992. In 1996, Gordon Leary moved west from Paprican headquarters in Pointe-Claire, QC, where he had been Executive Director of the Mechanical Pulps Network (Centres of Excellence program) to become Manager of ARC’s pulp and paper program. He was only the ninth pulp and paper employee. There are 22 now.

ARC’s strategy has been to hire key professionals and grow teams around them. Besides Leary, other staff members include Ted Garver (whitewater sensor technology), John Oliver (papermaking), Wade Chute (non-wood fibres), Bryan Fuhr (pilot plant manager) and George Sedgwick (EASTS and other sensors).

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Leary said his group works with anyone who is interested — mills, suppliers, universities. ARC personnel teach about half of the pulp and paper courses offered by the University of Alberta. There has not previously been a strong university link because, as expected, oil was and is the big player in the province.

With Alberta’s abundant aspen resources, many projects focus on this species. The scope of these projects takes in debarking, pulping, bleaching and extractives.

“Because we’re linked strongly to the mills, there is a lot of work done at the mill problem level,” Leary explained. “But, we’re building links with the final product side.” However, Leary added that ARC’s pulp and paper group doesn’t aspire to have its own pilot paper machine. “We see ourselves as a smaller, niche player.”

There is some independent work done, funded by ARC or the province, but it needs to pass a rigorous approval process. “We need to show a plan where we’re heading — a market evaluation — and show a significant benefit to the province.”

Some seed money is provided to get the project off the ground, a maximum of $20 000. A partner must be identified. The technology is then commercialized. This commercialization step requires a considerable amount of money. Final product development and troubleshooting are the final steps to the research process.

Forestry and environment (two main areas under which the pulp and paper programs work) accounted for 33% of the $30.1 million in contract revenue that the ARC received in 1999-2000, working with more than 850 partners. This was an increase of more than $5 million over 1998-99. Other areas of work include energy, health, manufacturing and agriculture/biotechnology. In 1999-00, pulp and paper has a budgeted income of $3 million.

Although the ARC as a whole supplies some funding, the biggest source of revenue must come from external partners, usually in the form of joint ventures. Leary noted that as the pulp and paper group’s profiles grows, it is asked to do a lot more. Intellectual property stays with the ARC so it can be marketed elsewhere. In 1998-99, the ARC received $1.7 million in licensing fees and royalties. In special cases, the intellectual property may stay with the contractor.

“Public good” R&D may also be done, Leary added, such as agro pulping. However, an outside interest is needed for these projects to be developed fully.

Papermaking

In April 1999, the ARC opened a new $2.8-million papermaking laboratory that included a dynamic sheet former and a range of testing equipment. The former can take any furnish mix and form a sheet of paper on a moving drum.

The former consists of a high-speed centrifugal drum covered with a forming wire. The vertical traversing jet sprays stock, building a fibre layer on the wire. The former can produce sheets as large as 24 by 97 cm. The precise jet/wire ratio setting allows fibre orientation control.

The lab was built because it was believed there would be at least two new paper mills built in Alberta. Although that development may be on the back burner, Leary said the laboratory has been successful because the province’s pulp mills need to know how their product performs in the papermakers’ hands.

John Oliver, who heads the papermaking lab, said that the facility is structured to use the former to simulate commercial paper grades with a particular focus on print quality. “We talk to the pulp mills to find out what their customers want.

“What we’re trying to do,” Oliver added, “is to use the former to manipulate structure and understand how it affects quality. We transmit this information to the papermaker to achieve a better print quality.”

Aside from being able to simulate conventional papers, the sheet former is a “unique” tool to look at novel, multi-ply structures. “This is where you can put things where you want them,” Oliver explained, either additives or different pulp furnishes. “If you can use cheaper components for the bulk of the furnish, you can put the expensive components where they are needed most, usually the surface.”

The lab has a Euclid coater/printer that has a variable load pneumatic blade acting on variable velocity gravure rolls engraved with different line spacings. It can apply conventional clay of CaCO3 pigmented paper coatings, basestock coating systems, specialty coatings or size coatings.

Tests using agri-fibres in conventional pulps to identify some practical situations where opportunities could exist to substitute base pulps are also scheduled.

Other work is trying to interrelate bulk and surface structure with print quality. This could enrich papermakers’ knowledge about headbox floc size and distribution.

Mechanical pulp consortium

Formed in 1992 in conjunction with three mills — Alberta Newsprint, Millar Western (Whitecourt, AB) and Slave Lake — the consortium now includes the Millar Western mill in Meadow Lake, SK. The consortium accounts for about a third of ARC’s pulp and paper work. Managed by the ARC, the consortium meets quarterly.

Pilot plant equipment includes a chipper, pressurized chip impregnator, pressurized and atmospheric refiners and pulp handling/screening. The pilot scale screen, hydrocylcone and thickening device allows ARC to process pulps to customer specifications.

Although the title is mechanical pulp, the work takes in:

Environmental projects such as sludge landspreading and activated sludge basin control. The latter includes online monitoring of “bug” health (EASTS, see Environment section). Leary noted that the ARC has told mills of problems before they knew they had them. Slave Lake Pulp was able to eliminate a two-year-old sludge stockpile. Initial results show growing cycles may be reduced from 110 to as low as 70 years for some tree species thanks to sludge applications.

Wood quality — debarking, chip quality, effects on refining, moisture content monitoring.

Bleaching, including different agents and their effect on pulp quality.

Process control and enhancement, e.g., white water sensors.

There is also some work done on papermaking and paper testing. It usually takes the involvement of at least two mills for any project to get the go-ahead. However, Leary added, consideration may be given to special individual projects. In 2000, the consortium is looking at an agri-fibre project. This is a first. It includes wood/agri-fibre blends. Can they improve desired pulp properties?

Financing comes from the mills, which contribute a fixed amount per tonne. It usually adds up to about $1 million annually. For special projects, the government may also contribute.

One such special project was the use of burnt wood. Horrific forest fires in 1998 seriously affected the FMAs of three mills — Slave Lake, Millar Western (Pulp & Paper Canada, September 2000) and Alberta Newsprint. The ARC put together a proposal dealing with such technical issues as carbon, wood moisture and shives content. Realizing that time was of the essence and that the mills were “on the hook”, the Alberta Science and Research Authority (ASRA) provided some funding.

The biggest issue was the dryness of the trees, Leary said. “You end up with very brittle wood — more fines, loss of tear and t
ensile. You need more bleaching chemicals and runnability is poor.”

Leary noted that it was a particular problem for Alberta Newsprint, which uses no kraft pulp in its furnish.

Another problem was blue stain that comes from wood that was killed in the fire but left standing afterwards. “For a lot of the wood, it was hard to tell if it was burnt, especially the aspen,” Leary said. “We ended up with dead standing trees, one or two years old. That’s really a problem.”

The project is just about over. The chips have been used for two years now. Area sawmills were persuaded to improve their debarking. Chip moisture monitors were also used extensively. Ongoing work will determine how these chips affect the process further downstream and if it is beneficial to segregate these chips.

Non-wood fibre

Wade Chute, senior research engineer, agrifibres, said the work is focused on the plants available in Alberta such as hemp, flax and wheat straw. The first two have longer fibres and can be used to enhance strength. Wheat straw is a cereal crop and has shorter fibres. There has been some interest from the US in pulping corn stover (stalks).

“We are taking a mainstream industrial approach,” Chute explained. “We are looking at the commercial viability of the crops in the region of a mill. We will look at the pulp properties a mill wants and try to marry the two.”

The group is looking at how agrifibre pulp can be substituted for conventional pulps, its effect on paper properties and what the potential savings are. For example, around the Alberta Pacific mill in Boyle there are abundant wheat straw resources. It is estimated that the province produces about 16 million t/y of wheat straw, which is similar to short rotation poplar in fibre geometry.

Silica can be a problem with cereal straws, but not with hemp. “We are studying how we can avoid or solve this problem,” Chute said. “It’s also why we are looking more at mechanical pulps, because it is not such as problem as it is with kraft pulps.” However, chemical pulp can be obtained from straw fibres with a relatively mild treatment and the fibres are easily accessible to bleaching chemicals.

ARC estimates that a stand-alone straw mechanical pulp mill using as little as 150 000 t/y may be viable. A 100% agri-fibre chemical pulp mill would need perhaps one million tonnes because of the low yield and the need for large-scale operations for efficient chemical recovery.

A “let’s see” attitude still prevails. Farmers are very interested in the value-added potential it can bring to their operations. It could provide a dual-purpose crop for them while still proving economical for mills.

The use of non-wood fibres may also be beneficial to landspreading. Most secondary sludges have a high nitrogen content and hemp consumes nitrogen. However, as Chute noted, for hemp to be used, it must be competitive with softwood. If not, there will be little interest in anything but specialty markets.

Power requirements are lower but yield loss could be a detriment to their acceptance. However, Chute added, yield should be the equivalent of raw wood as the lignin content of flax or hemp bast fibres is only about 5%.

Chute said that once taken from the field, the cereal straws are bulky and this could pose a storage problem. Cereal straw quality will also deteriorate. However, for hemp and flax, storage is not a problem and keeping it in the field is not a problem. In fact, the sun tends to bleach it.

Chute said that three mills have invested in research projects in hemp and flax. The percentage of each in the furnish is dependent on the grade. Chute said that for standard newsprint, five to 15% substitution can improve strength. He added that 100% hemp mechanical pulp has a tear strength twice that of softwood pulp. “A lot depends on what the mills want to achieve and the raw materials available. There are some inherent fibre limitations and technical challenges, but there are still some attitudes to overcome. All processes are set up to handle wood.”

Chute said that hemp and flax would be viable in Alberta. However, in Ontario, for example, where farmers can grow hemp, they can also grow corn and soybeans. And these are more viable for them. “Therefore, an incentive would be needed for a farmer to grow hemp.”

Any widespread use on agrifibres would have to make good business sense. That is, it could be instituted with a minimal capital expense. Chute said ARC’s goal is to have a mill-scale trial before April 2001.

Sensor technology

ARC is developing sensors and process control technology related to wood chip quality (brightness, bark content, species) but its major effort is called “White Water Instruments”. White Water Instruments is the research and development group led by Ted Garver that has focused product development on delivering sophisticated measurement and control technology related to high-value water chemistry problems. “Our business model starts with the premise that the pulp and paper industry is a knowledge-based one. This requires our working with mills to ensure that our instruments are fully integrated into analysis and control packages that provide the operators real tools for reducing costs and improving productivity.” Garver stressed that advances in computer processing power and networking, advanced control, and industry needs have converged to the point where the opportunity for solving multi-dimensional control problems is very compelling.

Garver listed some of the projects due for commercialization with the next 18 months:

Colloidal pitch analyzers — These instruments that measure the concentration and stability of colloidal pitch using temperature variation spectroscopy include a colloidal sampling unit, an online colloidal pitch analyzer and a laboratory pitch analyzer.

Online dissolved solids analyzer for the control of counter current flow, measurement of pulp washing efficiency and for prediction of drainage and deposition related to white water chemistry. The proprietary method combines the use of UV and conductivity measurements to measure total dissolved solids, inorganic dissolved solids and organic dissolved solids.

Online bleaching analyzer, as a measurement for the control of peroxide bleaching, bleaching efficiency and pulp quality.

Garver said that, “As we put these instruments online we find we are opening a whole new perspective into the water chemistry. The correlation between dissolved solids and drainage on a paper machine that we have seen at Alberta Newsprint has been really eye opening.”

Environment

Besides the environmental work already listed, ARC scientists are working with local mechanical pulp and paper mills to monitor and control treatment process conditions associated with processing waste streams. ARC has developed an advisory software system: Expert Activated Sludge Treatment System (EASTS) that provides a comprehensive approach to effluent management. The system monitors process conditions and issues early warning control advice to operators.

The PC-based system is described as modular and easily customized to an individual mill’s needs. Operators may also run “what-if” scenarios before committing to a change in process conditions.

Further planned additions in facilities, manpower and programs will help the ARC’s pulp and paper group expand the scope of services it can offer clients and help improve these clients’ competitiveness in world markets.


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