It is no secret that the northern bleached softwood kraft pulp has been having a tough time. The shrinking printing and writing paper market means declining demand for NBSK as reinforcement pulp.
Then there is also the challenge of having strong competition from low-cost producers, such as the hardwood kraft pulp manufacturers from South America. These factors show that there is a strong need for product innovation and market diversification.
Yes, packaging and tissue grades still enjoy some growth. However, there are new opportunities in hygiene products, where there is demand for kraft fibres for its absorption properties, not just as reinforcement.
The recent financial results of leading producers of disposable diapers, adult incontinence and feminine hygiene products show that it is boom times for this segment. Additionally, several statistics show that there is a huge growth to be tapped in emerging markets such as Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
So the question raised by FPInnovations' member companies is, can Canadian market pulp mills tap into this prosperous market?
Hence, let's talk about fluff pulp, which is a major raw material for hygiene products. Fluff pulp is a special type of market pulp and carries some selling price premium as compared to paper grade softwood pulps. But the lion's share of global capacity of about 5 million tonnes is in the southern US.Southern pine has been perceived as the fibre of choice mainly due to its high coarseness and high fibre length.FPInnovations' work showed that the Canadian NBSK has a potential for making good fluff pulp. When the variables of pulp machines are removed, NBSK properties are similar to Southern pine. In fact, NBSK can be directly used for making hygiene products if the roll form is not required and manufacturers of hygiene products accept fluff pulp in bale form. In addition, there is a potential advantage of NBSK for improved pad integrity, but it is still to be demonstrated.
Fluff pulp represents only 9% of the total market pulp capacity in the world, but it is valued in the US that its production volume represents the same amount as that of paper grade market pulp. Meanwhile, there is no production of fluff pulp in Canada.
One Canadian producer, Domtar, has recently converted its existing fine paper machine in Plymouth, NC, to fluff pulp production with a capacity of 440,000 tonnes/yr, involving a US$73.5 million investment. This demonstrates the main challenge for our Canadian NBSK mills is that capital investment is required to convert a paper grade pulp machine to fluff pulp.
A full mill conversion will depend on business case: the price difference between paper grade and fluff pulp, which is by the way higher in Europe than in North America; using cheaper species and targeting local markets to achieve savings through reduction of transportation and lower carbon footprint. The green image is very important for some hygiene producers.
FPInnovations has facilities dedicated to the fluff and nonwovens segment, offering support in product development for market pulp strategy and with the means to produce dry fibres and measure energy of defibration, as well as nonwovens product prototypes.
Testing capabilities include: dry defibration in laboratory Hammermill and measure energy of defibration; pulp quality (knots and percentage of usable fibres); airlaid former and measure of absorption characteristics; expertise in structure design and optimization; testing methods in accordance to TAPPI, INDA and EDANA Nonwovens Test Methods; advanced testing methods including electron microscopy, simulation tools, porosimetry, contact angle, etc.