Paper sector identifies low-carbon breakthrough technologies

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How is the European paper manufacturing sector preparing for a competitive low carbon future? Today's guest blogger, David Workman, Director General of the Confederation of Paper Industries, explains how a unique competition has generated some truly innovative ideas on how the sector can compete in a future of carbon constraint.

In common with all Energy Intensive Industries Europe's pulp and paper manufacturers face two barriers to global competitiveness. Firstly, the growing disparity between gas and electricity costs here in Europe compared to other parts of the world and secondly, the rising cost of emitting carbon as the EU heads toward its target of reducing such emissions by 80% by 2050.

It was for this reason that the Confederation of European Paper Industries (CEPI) decided to commission a 2050 Roadmap report. Indeed it was the first major industrial sector to do so and its report “unfold the future” was published just over two years ago.

Its central conclusion was that the industry could not get more than half way towards achieving the 80% target even if all of Europe's 950 mills invested in the latest known technology and adopted best environmental practice. Its future as a major European industrial sector looked to be in jeopardy unless it could find a different way of operating and, at the same time, improve its profitability.

The industry took the brave decision to put competitive hostilities to one side and set up what became known as the Two Team Project. CEPI bought together academics, scientists, suppliers and industry experts and split them into two competing teams charged with the task of finding breakthrough technologies that would deliver an 80% reduction in carbon emissions and a 50% increase in value added.

The initial obstacles were legal ones and therefore lawyers were heavily involved in putting this project on a legal footing, particularly in relation to the thorny issue of intellectual property rights.

Once these issues had been resolved the two teams set about their work which involved extensive desk research, travel and interaction with other industrial sectors – notably steel and the chemical and food sectors. After all there was no point in reinventing the wheel!! It was also perhaps not surprising, given the paper industry's close association with forestry, that Mother Nature was also bought into the scope of this study.

It needs to be born in mind that the last technological breakthrough came some twenty years ago with the invention of the shoe press and before that you need to go back to the 1920s to find previous breakthroughs – so the challenge was immense.

For two years these teams assessed a host of ideas, nearly sixty in total. These were whittled down to eight which were then put before a judging panel which was tasked with picking a winner. This proved to be very difficult as all the final concepts had merit and by common consent exceeded all expectations.

Eventually one concept prevailed and the outcome of the contest was announced at Paper Week in Brussels last November.

The winning project involved the use of Deep Eutectic Solvents (DES). This is truly a ground breaking discovery. DES are produced by plants and their use in pulp and paper making could well open up the way to produce pulp at very low temperatures and at atmospheric pressure. Using DES any type of biomass could be dissolved into lignin, cellulose and hemicellulose with minimal energy, emissions and residues. They could also be used to recover cellulose from waste and dissolve ink residues in recovered paper – two highly significant potential by-products of this discovery.

Other potential innovations suggested that there were possibly ways of making paper with steam rather than water, that supercritical CO2 could be used as a drying agent in the same way that the food industry uses it and that by converting to electricity (from renewable sources) for heat production the industry would not only significantly reduce its emissions but could act as a support mechanism to the grid by storing electricity in the form of hydrogen or pulp.

Paper making is not just energy intensive it is also capital intensive. You will not get much change out £400m if you wanted to build a new mill. A number of the projects also suggested that the mill of the future could be built at a fraction of this cost and could be located just about anywhere (at the moment they need to be close to a source of water).

These are extremely exciting times for our industry but we need to be careful about getting carried away on a tide of enthusiasm. In all cases much more time consuming research needs to be carried out and demonstration plants built to prove viability. This will take time – something that we do not have. If the 2050 target is to be hit then any technological breakthrough will have to be a commercial proposition by 2030 at the latest – and that is only sixteen years away. Our investment cycles can be between twenty and thirty years so it is no use waiting until 2049 before deploying new technology.

So what lessons can we learn from this exercise? Firstly, that the more minds you pull together the greater the expertise at your disposal. This means that competitors need to work together, something that does not come naturally. Secondly, if industry seeks to improve its competitive position using the old tried and tested methods it will probably fail. We already operate very efficiently in terms of energy consumption, use of recycled fibres as a raw material and in manning in the mills. Thirdly, it is possible to think the impossible, to come up with revolutionary concepts to meet the challenges of resource scarcity and carbon constraint.

However, there is one important lesson that our legislators need to learn. It is counter-productive to keep hitting industry with more green targets, taxes and levies. All that does is to impede competitiveness and force industry to relocate to less regulated parts of the world. What is really needed is access to development funding because none of the projects which resulted from this exercise are going to be bought to market unless they receive support – both continued support from the paper companies and from EU R&D or innovation funds.

Copies of the final Two Team Project report can be obtained from CEPI – www.cepi.org or from the CPI here in the UK – www.paper.org.uk.

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