Domtar bets on its bio-portfolio

Mark Willliamson

Demonstration projects include nanocellulose and lignin production, with bio-fuel from wood waste to come. Bio-energy is also an important part of the portfolio.

Domtar President and CEO John D. Williams cuts a ribbon made from lignin at opening of Plymouth NC lignin extraction plant.

Recently, Domtar has added diversity and extra value to its product mix. The largest uncoated freesheet (UFS) producer and the largest paper grade pulp manufacturer in North America has ventured into the consumer products field with the acquisition of the Attends brand of adult incontinence products and Associated Hygienic Products, the largest manufacturer and supplier of store brand infant diapers in the United States. Also, searching for extra value from its fiber resources and pulping capability, the company has entered into the fluff pulp market with the full conversion of the 444,000 t/yr Plymouth, NC Kraft pulp mill that formerly made furnish for now-closed UFS machines. One UFS machine was converted to fluff pulp, joining an existing pulp drying machine at the mill. However, Domtar's plan to reinvent itself has not stopped with these new ventures.

Capitalizing on supply chain

In addition, Domtar has taken some strong and visible initiatives recently to get more value from its supply chain of forest bio-resources at its 12 North American chemical pulp mills which produce 4.5 million t/yr of pulp fiber. This fiber is used for papermaking furnish in the 9 integrated mills or as market pulp or fluff pulp. Three of these investments have made the headlines recently. In early 2012, the CelluForce 1 t/day nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC) demonstration plant was started up adjacent to Domtar's Windsor, QC mill. CelluForce is a joint venture with FP Innovations, Canada's national forest products research and development organization. Earlier this year, a 75 t/d lignin extraction plant started up at the Plymouth, NC mill. Metso is the supplier of the LignoBoost™ process and a development partner. A bio-fuel from wood waste conversion project at the Dryden, ON mill in partnership with Battelle Memorial Institute is in the planning stages. Bio-energy generation is also part of Domtar's bio strategy, as exemplified by a recent project at the Kamloops, BC mill and an upcoming biomass co-generation project at the Rothschild, WI mill.

These investments in bio-products and bio-energy are forming an important part of what Domtar calls its bio-portfolio strategy that is intended to get the most value from the supply chain of forest resources and to promote Domtar's goal to lead in fiber-based product innovation. Bruno Marcoccia, Domtar's Director of Research and Development elaborates on the bio-portfolio concept. "We seek to capitalize on our existing supply chain, infrastructure and the unique capabilities and opportunities they offer. Our strategy is to create a portfolio of different products with short, intermediate and long?term initiatives. These initiatives will have both tactical and strategic elements. We are making several "small" bets recognizing the likelihood of delays and some failures. Since some projects are at an early stage there are some risks; it's hard to predict which ones will be the winners. But some products have such a compelling upside potential."

Facts about Domtar

  • Over $5 billion US in annual sales
  • More than 9000 employees
  • Over 4.5 mllion t/yr of pulp fiber produced for integrated paper mills and market pulps.
  • Annual capacity of 3.4 million t of uncoated freesheet papers, the largest in North America
  • Supply chain handles over 20 million t of woody biomass
  • 8 million t of wood biomass used in boilers and co-gen turbines
  • Over 6 GW hours of power generation

Externalized, collaborative R&D

Nanocrystalline cellulose can impart unique properties to a variety of value-added products. Since these projects require some process, product application and market development and carry some risk and uncertainty, Domtar has chosen to partner with research organizations and companies that can add expertise to the development and mitigate the risk of going it alone. Indeed, these partners bring some notable know-how to the table. Marcoccia explains the advantages: "It is important to have good partners that have complementary skills to yours, and that is a good way to minimize risk. We feel this type of externalized, collaborative R&D is more cost effective and successful. " Marcoccia also credits the financial contributions and collaboration of Canada's and USA's government agencies. The partnership of university researchers also adds to the efforts to develop new products and applications.

The 1 t/d CellluForce NCC plant was the first to come on line. Marcoccia explains that this was set up as a joint venture since the technology was so transformative that it didn't fit into normal pulp mill operation. The adjacent pulp mill provides rolled pulp as a feedstock. Also, the product application development is very early in the demonstration phase. The upside potential of NCC in its various customized forms is intriguing and potentially game changing for a wide variety of value-added end uses. Just consider that an NCC composite is stronger than steel. NCC improves strength and toughness and can reduce damage caused by wear, humidity and spectral radiation. Light reflectivity (tunable from ultraviolet to infra red), gas impermeability, and stability over time, makes the creation of many new forest-based nanoproducts that can be used in numerous industrial sectors possible. At this point in time we will just have to wait and see the commercial potential.

Value-added lignin applications

BioChoice lignin may displace petrochemicals in many applications. On the other hand the lignin extraction plant at the Plymouth mill is an integral part of the mill black liquor recovery cycle and could be justified partially by the impact on the process The justification for installing Metso's LignoBoost process was an intriguing combination of good old-fashioned ROI plus the potential value-added chemicals that come from the lignin raw material. The long term strategic objectives were supported by the short term tactical results in the mill process.

Since the mill was converted to full time fluff pulp production the recovery boiler was overloaded by 5% with organic solids. By removing up to 75 t/d of lignin to the recovery boiler feed this limitation could be remedied and pulp production increased. These plans are in progress as the lignin plant progresses through its startup curve. Right now some of the extracted lignin is being used as a fuel for the mill's biomass boiler and some is being delivered to potential end users and research organizations. For potential customers of the new lignin by-products it is important to demonstrate a reliable commercial supply, says Marcoccia.

Domtar's goal is to eventually use all of the 75 t/day lignin product for external sales and substitute its value as an internal fuel with lower cost biomass. The task at hand is to prove that lignin can be a value-added marketable product. It is interesting to note that Domtar has a long history using lignin as a chemical by-product. Back in the 1960's Domtar used lignin as an adhesive in its Arborite™ laminate product that was used for kitchen and bathroom countertops. With the low price of oil then the lignin adhesive couldn't compete with petroleum-based adhesives. Now, the economics are more favorable for lignin as a petro-chemical replacement. The potential market is very attractive according to a Frost& Sullivan report which says that lignin could be a viable and renewable replacement for the $130 billion per year aromatic hydrocarbon business.

Domtar has branded its lignin product BioChoice™. Target applications include adhesives, agricultural chemicals, carbon products (carbon fiber,graphite, activated carbon,etc.), coatings ,dispersants, fuels and fuel additives, natural binders and resins.

BioChoice production plant at Plymouth, NC mill

Hog fuel to bio-fuel

A demonstration plant at Domtar's Dryden, ON Kraft pulp mill will convert chip screenings, presently used as a hog fuel, to bio-oil that will be a supplement to traditional liquid fossil fuels. Battelle Memorial Institute, the world's largest private R&D institute, is Domtar's partner and the developer of the anaerobic fast pyrolysis and catalytic upgrading technology that converts biomass to bio-oil. The process is expected to be very energy efficient. In addition, some of the process by products can be used in the adjacent mill. The project will be implemented in two phases culminating in a plant which will produce between 50 and 100 t/d. No date has been announced for the startup.

Bio-energy projects

Domtar is also active in bio-energy generation. At its Kamloops BC mill, a major project, which was implemented from 2010 to 2012, increased power generation from biomass from 44 MW to 70 MW. The project involved increasing energy efficiency for pulp manufacturing, the installation of two new high efficiency turbines, the upgrading of two biomass boilers and No.2 recovery boiler and upgrading environmental equipment to reduce particulate emissions. The extra power generated is sold to the electrical utility BC Hydro at favorable green electricity rates.

Domtar has partnered with We Energies in building a co-generation plant next to its Rothschild, WI mill. Domtar provided the supply chain for woody biomass for the 50 MW plant which will generate steam for the mill, virtually eliminating the use of fossil fuels. The green electricity will be sold to the electricity grid. The fuel includes waste from sawmills and the pulp mill as well as leftover slash removed from the forest floor after logging operations. The startup is scheduled this autumn.

Will bets be realized?

Will Domtar's bets on bio-products pay off big in the years to come? Marcoccia feels it is too early to tell now since some of them have a longer term development cycle. Apart from the fully developed biomass power generation capability, lignin products are the most advanced. There is a strong upside potential for higher value products, however. He makes the point that the announced projects are only a part of what the company is working on. Domtar will continue to develop value-added product applications in four areas which he calls platforms: specialty fibers, lignin, chemicals (from lignin and wood sugars) and fuels.

This article was first published in Bio-fibre Magazine, Issue 2/2013.