BCTMP: A PULP FOR ALL REASONS?

Pulp & Paper Canada
August 31, 2000
By Pulp & Paper Canada
Early in its development the future for bleached chemithermomechanical pulp (BCTMP) was uncertain; it was neither well recognized nor widely used. When Millar Western opened its first BCTMP mill in Whitecourt, AB (Pulp & Paper Canada, October 1988), followed in 1992 with its mill in Meadow Lake, SK (Pulp & Paper Canada, October 1992), perceptions were changing. BCTMP was starting to be used in printing and writing grades as a substitute for more expensive kraft pulp. Still, its primary use was in hygienic products. Millar Western began to aggressively promote BCTMP as a flexible, custom-made product adaptable to a variety of end uses. As well, the company started to work closely with papermakers to show them how BCTMP could work for them.

Twelve years after the opening of Whitecourt, the prospects for BCTMP have changed dramatically. BCTMP has evolved into prime quality pulp that is used in myriad products. "In 1988 we never thought we would be in the grades of paper we are in now, from printing and writing grades to board," commented Bob Leslie, Whitecourt's mill manager. "As we can make better, more consistent pulps, papermakers can use them more readily. We're trying to provide a functional advantage to papermakers with our pulp, not just a cost advantage."

Millar Western's Whitecourt mill can produce 275 000 tonnes per year (t/y) of BCTMP. Its Meadow Lake mill (a partnership with Crown Investments Corporation of Saskatchewan) has an annual capacity of 285 000 t.

The company's competitive position was further enhanced in 1999 when it signed an agreement with Louisiana-Pacific (L-P) to manage and market the output of L-P's Chetwynd, BC, BCTMP mill. Although L-P retains ownership of the mill, Millar Western has a two-year option to purchase it. The mill, now operating as Chetwynd Pulp Company , can produce 160 000 t/y. This brings Millar Western's combined capacity to 720 000 t/y. Overall, Millar Western is the world's leading supplier of BCTMP, providing for more than 33% of the world's total.

Millar Western is known as a leader in environmental control technology, as exemplified by the zero-effluent discharge technology it pioneered at Meadow Lake. The Chetwynd mill also releases no liquid effluent. These two mills remain the world's first and only successful zero-effluent market pulp mills. The company has also made significant headway in reducing landfill waste. For example, most of Whitecourt's mill biomass is applied to farmers' fields as a soil enhancer. A portion is also sent to a local power plant to fuel electricity generation.

In production processes, Chetwynd is somewhat different from the Whitecourt and Meadow Lake mills. These differences were outlined by the manager of pulp sales administration for Millar Western Forest Products, Gregg Nielsen. "Chetwynd has inter-stage bleaching, is a single-line operation, has a hot pond for logs prior to debarking and has a hog boiler for bark. The process also features twin-wire presses versus the screw and twin-roll presses at Whitecourt and Meadow Lake. There is also one-stage washing post bleaching at Chetwynd versus two at Whitecourt and Meadow Lake."

The company market productions from all three mills as Millar Western pulp. Neilsen added, "As much as possible, we specialize in different grades at the different mills. But having five production lines (two each at Whitecourt and Meadow Lake) over three mills also means we have the flexibility to adjust our production to best meet the needs of our customers."

Since it arrived on the scene, Millar Western has seen many changes in how it markets its product. For many years, its sales cornerstone was a long-term contract with Scott Paper in the US. Gradually, however, that volume shifted to other customers in other parts of the world. Now, Asia and Europe represent the company's largest markets and together account for almost 90% of the company's sales. The end user profile has also changed. So far in 2000, 75% of the company's pulp has been sold to the printing and writing papers market, up from 50% only 10 years ago.

Asian papermakers are perhaps the company's most important clients, especially those in the board business. (Millar Western also has a strong customer base in Europe.)

There are several large board machines in southeast Asia making packaging for cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and electronics. With no pulp capacity, they are forced to buy all their pulp. Both softwood and hardwood BCTMP is in demand.

Millar Western's success in the printing and writing market reflects the product's quality advancements over the last decade. Ron Reis, the company's vice-president, engineering and technology, observed that the initial focus in marketing to the printing and writing sector was as a cost-effective replacement for hardwood kraft. "We are today focused on the functional advantage of our pulp and paper products. Sales of our higher bulk aspen pulp grades, for example, have multiplied tenfold in the last three years in printing and writing applications."

Reis said that Millar Western has clearly demonstrated that higher bulk aspen pulps can replace a significant portion of high-bulk softwood in the interior plies of multi-ply ivory board grades in Asia. He added that many of aspen's functional advantages have value advantages as well. For example, high-bulk pulps allow papermakers to make the same caliper and stiffness with less pulp. "For both uncoated and coated freesheets, they can use up to 30% BCTMP," he said.

Paperboard, which is used to make packaging for cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, electronics and other goods is another growing market for the company. It now represents about 15% of sales, but, said Neilsen, has a significant upside. There are several large board machines in southeast Asia, yet not enough pulp capacity in the region to satisfy their needs. For this end use, both softwood and hardwood BCTMP are in demand. Neilsen explained that many Asian board machines run three to five plies, using a low-brightness, high-bulk pulp for the inner plies and a high-brightness pulp for the two outer layers.

Neilsen said that the company is well established in a variety of paper grades in Europe and Asia, but that the US remains a "difficult" market. One obstacle is the higher proportion of integrated companies in the US than in other markets. Another is the fact that the US itself is a pulp producer, making it easy for US producers to source their pulp domestically in downturns.

US papermaking standards have also stood in the way, Neilsen said. However, a recent US Government Printing Office edict, which declared that BCTMP is not a groundwood pulp, could open the door to more sales into this market. The new standard means that papermakers supplying the US government can now use BCTMP as furnish for non-permanent wood-free papers.

Is it the pulp . . . or the paper?

As pulp has evolved over the years, so has paper. Leslie noted that papermakers are looking for different properties such as bulk and stiffness. "From the beginning, we believed that BCTMP could be a replacement for hardwood kraft and we began to market it accordingly," noted Leslie. "Until we started there was very little aspen BCTMP on the market."

A lot of the development work was for high brightness aspen grades for printing and writing papers. "Whatever challenges, the papermakers had -- low debris, brightness, bulk, freeness -- we've been able to meet them," Leslie said. One benefit this pulp evolution has had is that it has made the sales staff exceptionally knowledgeable about papermaking. "They not only recommend what pulp to use but also drive new grade development to meet the specific needs of our customers."

Leslie explained that a lot of the quality development of BCTMP takes place after refining, through bleaching, cleaning and screening. "We can control some of the relationship between brightness and strength in the bleach plant. We can make different grades and be more consistent. More sophisticated controls and control strategies and better operating systems have allowed us to make a more consistent product at a higher quality."

The Whitecourt mill makes about 20 grades of pulp and all are customer specific. Operators have grade changes "down to an art." Depending on sailing schedules in ports where the pulp is shipped from, the mill may have to make the same grade twice in a month.

Leslie added that the mill is operating at 98+% uptime with 97% on-grade efficiency, which he calls "fantastic results". Winning acceptance for Millar Western pulp in the current variety of products did take a while, Leslie added. But, by expanding its grade selection, working with customers on the mill floor to help them maximize the performance of BCTMP, and producing consistent, high-quality pulp, has successfully elevated its products' reputation among papermakers. Keeping the mill's diversity of grades will be important in helping mitigate the effect of future down cycles.

The company has made a number of improvements to its process to increase its capacity. This has come about through debottlenecking and the implementation of more efficient operating procedures rather than through any large investments. The major change was replacing medium-consistency bleaching with high-consistency bleaching in 1995. This included the modification of two towers at Whitecourt and the installation of two new towers at Meadow Lake. Sunds Defibrator twin-roll presses were also added at both mills. The cost of the project was $15 million at Whitecourt and $18 million at Meadow Lake. "The high consistency tower allowed us to improve our washing and bleaching efficiencies," Leslie said.

All three mills believe there is still room to further debottleneck and are continuing to investigate ways to increase capacity as demand grows. Leslie feels the Whitecourt mill is at the limit of some of its auxiliary equipment, but thinks the mill can reach 285 000 t/y.

A witness to change

The Whitecourt mill has witnessed significant consolidation among suppliers. Although it is using the same basic process and most of the original installed in 1988, the names have changed. The refiners are Hymac (now owned by Andritz). The presses are from Thune (now owned by Kvaerner) and Sunds Defibrator is now part of Valmet. Leslie said that the changeovers were seamless and good service from all suppliers continues. The distributed control system is a Bailey Net 90 (now ABB) although the mill is moving to a more Windows-based Infi 90 system. The mill is slowly changing its PLCs, but still using GE. As control valves wear out, they are replaced with more sophisticated ones. Pulp and motor sizes were increased in the various debottlenecking projects.

The mill also went through another important change when Meadow Lake started up in 1992. About 12 key personnel who played a critical role in the Whitecourt start-up four years earlier moved to Meadow Lake. Although this provided Meadow Lake with a great start-up curve, it meant an almost new start-up at Whitecourt. After beginning his career at Whitecourt, Leslie himself went to Meadow Lake for 10 years, returning to Whitecourt a year ago as mill manager.

Whitecourt employs 140, mill and office. A point of pride with the company is that many of the original maintenance and operating people were hired locally and there has been little turnover since start-up. "They know how to make this mill run well," Leslie said.

The three mills work closely together. Videoconferencing has been established, enhancing the mills' ability to collaborate on technical, production and market issues.

Besides greater collaboration among the mills, Joe Costantino, the company's senior vice-president of operations, credits the company's Continuous Improvement Program, now into its third year, for contributing to the mills' enhanced performance. The programs, which began at Meadow Lake, empowers employee teams to meet quarterly and annual objectives in areas such as safety, quality, production, cost control and the environment. For example, in 1999, the Meadow Lake finishing line optimization team was charged with reviewing pulp bale uniformity. The team expanded its mandate to include bale moisture levels. As a result, process and equipment changes led to reduced water content in the bales, allowing more pulp to be shipped in each bale and saving the company $2 million in shipping costs.

While employee teams have successfully responded to a wide array of technical challenges, Millar Western also relies on affiliations with government and industry partners to keep its competitive edge. It works closely with the Alberta Research Council (ARC) and is a member of the Mechanical Pulping Consortium (a grouping of five companies and the ARC) and in independent projects.

One of the few capital projects now on the books is a woodroom upgrade at Whitecourt. This is necessitated by a $40-million modernization of the company's Whitecourt sawmill. Because fibre recovery will be enhanced at the new sawmill, it will mean fewer softwood chips for the pulp mill. Whitecourt's softwood furnish is expected to decline from 45% to 33% when the new sawmills comes onstream, in 2001. The woodroom upgrade will allow the pulp mill to increase its whole log chipping of aspen and increase its production of hardwood pulp.

This change meshes well with market trends, which show a shift to hardwood pulps for more end products. It also meshes well with the composition of Millar Western's fibre supply, which is more heavily weighted toward hardwood.

"Our marketing people are continually looking at new applications for our pulp," Leslie said. "We've been able to deliver. And, within the applications in which we're already present, we're looking to increase the amount of our pulps being used." As new paper/board grades develop and existing ones evolve, Millar Western intends to be a player with the right pulp.

Working with fire
In 1998, large areas of Alberta were devastated by forest fires. Millar Western embarked upon a program to salvage 2 million m3 of wood. In 1999, 1.2 million m3 were salvaged with the balance scheduled to be harvested by late summer in 2000. The fire-damaged timber carried lower stumpage fees, presenting the company with an economic incentive to use as much of it as possible. The challenge, however, was to find ways to incorporate a large proportion of chips from fire-damaged timber into the pulping process, without compromising pulp quality. The installation of new debarking equipment at the sawmill helped cut down on the amount of carbon in the fibre furnish. This allowed the mill to run as much as 100% fire-affected chips for extended periods, with no negative effect on pulp quality.

Zero effluent pioneer
Millar Western made a name for itself when it decided to make Meadow Lake a zero-liquid-effluent-discharge mill. Working with the consultants at NLK, it designed an evaporation system to clean the water for reuse. The mill uses about 10% of the fresh water that a traditional mill of this type would use and only about 2.5% of the water a kraft mill would use.
Meadow Lake takes a portion of the smelt from the recovery boiler, dissolves and clarifies it and uses it as alkali source, primarily for impregnation and bleaching.

Chetwynd also use a zero-effluent system, making the mill a good fit for Millar Western. Chetwynd uses settling clarification and screening technology to remove most suspended solids from the effluent. It sells most of the smelt to other pulp companies as sodium carbonate make-up chemical or to mining companies as pH control. Chetwynd has also used precipitator ash as a pH control in the steam plant.

Whitecourt is the only Millar Western mill that discharges liquid effluent. When asked if the mill could be converted to zero effluent, Neilsen said that anything is possible. However, he noted that high water consumption levels and space constrictions at Whitecourt make it a difficult and costly proposition. Still, Whitecourt's biological effluent treat ment is successful, reducing effluent discharges to a fraction of the its allowable discharge.

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