For the second year in a row, PAPTAC’s annual Paperweek/BIOFOR conference was held virtually. Last year’s virtual format hosted on Microsoft Teams resulted in very high attendance by mill personnel and this year was no different – out of 969 registrants, 741 were from paper companies. There was a packed program over the four days of the conference (February 7–10), including 17 sessions labeled as panels, workshops, or round tables; and 67 other presentations in 12 categories.
The keynote session on Monday focused on opportunities for diversification of the industry and featured two speakers representing the federal and Quebec governments as well as Vito Consiglio, the CEO (since January) of Rayonier Advanced Materials (RYAM), a pulp company that is already very diversified, manufacturing cellulose specialty products that go into a variety of markets from tires and textiles to food products.
Yvonne Jones, the MP for Labrador and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Natural Resources and the Minister of Northern Affairs, spoke about the urgency of reaching net-zero GHG emissions by 2050. Climate change may be the greatest challenge of our generation, but it could also be a great opportunity for the forest sector. Bio-based paper packaging, compostable bioplastics, wood fibre insulation foams, bio-compostable face masks, mass timber, low-carbon building materials and low-carbon fuel regulations are being introduced. The federal government’s “Two billion trees” program will also use nature-based solutions to fight climate change.
In a similar vein, Pierre Dufour, the Minister of Forests, Wildlife and Parks for the Quebec government, mentioned three specific projects supported by his ministry: the production of bioplastics from paper mill sludge at Bosk Bioproducts, Quebec’s 2030 vision to increase its bioenergy production by 50% compared to 2013, and the production of biochar from biomass.
With a large mill-based audience, some suppliers took advantage of the opportunity to play a training role by giving presentations on technical subjects. Several presentations were given on the theme of how to get the most out of equipment in place, such as refiners, control systems, or analysis tools, in order to optimize product quality, cost and productivity. There was a session on reliability hosted by Tim Dunton of Reliability Solutions, a session on design of experiments by Martin Carignan of Différence GCS, and a presentation on the causes of curl, bending stiffness and baggy edges and how to correct them, by Stuart Loewen of LSZ PaperTech. French language sessions were provided on winding, hosted by Fréderic Parent of FPInnovations, and “Tissue 101”, hosted by Jessica Carette of Cascades. Several other workshops, round tables and panels allowed listeners to hear from experts in their field.
The BIOFOR section of the conference featured twelve sessions. Among these, a series of three sessions entitled “Biorefinery Transformation 101” were hosted by Envertis Consulting. The first two sessions focused on “Designing the biorefinery”, and the third, entitled “What makes a biorefinery great?”, featured success stories from three companies very near to commercialization of bioproducts. Rob Voncken made a presentation on Yilkins, a Netherlands-based company whose torrefaction technology is being used at the 120,000 tpy Futerra project in Portugal. Gurminder Minhas of Performance Biofilaments talked about nanofibrillated cellulose, for which a 5000 tpy production facility will be starting up later this year in Saguenay, QC. Finally, Matti Heikkilä of MetGen in Finland, talked about his company’s plans to market lignin products, including a repulpable and biodegradable additive for surface treatment of boards to make stronger, moisture-resistant board products. The discussion that followed, focusing on what make a biorefinery great, is well summarized by Heikkilä’s answer to the question: Solid research and science, Bankable engineering packages, Specific products, Committed off-takers, a Fair business model, Cooperation and Open innovation.
As well as several papers focusing on data, analytics and artificial intelligence, a panel discussion was held on digitalization in the industry, hosted by Paul Stuart of École Polytechnique. While data historian systems have been used widely to generate “big data”, and countless Industry 4.0 devices have been installed to capture data, the use of these data for higher value, such as data analytics, process modeling and digital twins is embryonic in this industry compared to other industries such as aerospace and the auto industry. The speakers in this session focused on opportunities to improve competitiveness, sustainability, reduction of energy use and GHG emissions, supply chain efficiency and safety, through digitalization strategies.
Replacing fossil fuels such as natural gas and oil with biomass-based fuels will not only reduce a mill’s carbon footprint, but can also be a cost-savings opportunity for some mills that have access to wood-based biofuels. Tuesday’s session on Energy, GHG and competitiveness featured speakers from academia, government and industry that discussed, among other topics, the GHG emission mitigation potential of the pulp and paper sector through energy efficiency, current funding policies for forest bioeconomy innovation, commercialization and development and possibilities for carbon capture and usage by pulp and paper mills in the future.
Fernando Preto of NRCan delivered a presentation on pyrolysis, one way to convert biomass into bioenergy. He reviewed some of the research done at the Canmet Energy lab in Ottawa, and gave an overview of the benefits and challenges of pyrolysis oil combustion.
New technologies and possibilities
The presentations that I always find the most interesting at PaperWeek are those that talk about exciting new opportunities. I’ll describe two that intrigued me. First, Brent Keller of Via Separations described the use of reverse osmosis membranes to concentrate weak black liquor prior to the evaporators in a kraft mill. Trials took place in two US mills in 2021, each of seven weeks duration, and showed great potential for this process to reduce the steam demand in a kraft mill. In the trials, the solids content was increased from about 14% to 18% solids, but concentration to as high as 39% was shown to be possible. The membranes went through a cleaning cycle for about 2 hours every day, with an overall uptime of 96% over the trial period. The greatest opportunities for this technology would be for mills with washer limitations, pulping capacity limitations or high energy costs. The system throughput met or exceeded all economic analysis targets in the trials.
Most of us are familiar with what nanotechnology can do for cellulose and other fields, but a relatively new concept is that of nanobubbles. Louis Morimanno, an industry veteran now working with NGT Canada (NanoGas Technologies) gave a fascinating talk about what happens when gas bubbles of less than 350 nm are generated in water. Bubbles larger than this float upwards due to their lower density, but nanobubbles are no longer buoyant because Brownian motion, where there is no preferential direction of flow, is a stronger force, and the nanobubbles do not coalesce, due to a supersaturation effect. This means that an aqueous suspension of nanobubbles can be stable for days, and an analysis of the oxygen content could be as high as 90 ppm, compared to the soluble limit of about 14 ppm in cold water! NGT has a patented nanobubble generator that has been used in several other industries but not yet in pulp and paper applications. Possibilities exist in many applications including effluent treatment, oxygen bleaching, pH control using CO2 and brown stock washing.
So, what about PaperWeek 2023 – will it still be virtual? I asked Greg Hay, Executive Director of PAPTAC. Referring to the huge participation of mill personnel in the last two editions of PaperWeek, he said “we can’t ever go back” to an onsite conference, although he wonders if some kind of hybrid is possible, or an onsite conference every few years. He has been encouraging suppliers to take advantage of the fact that the virtual format delivers larger audiences representing the vast majority of the Canadian industry, and mill managers are recognizing the low-cost no-travel-required training opportunity that the virtual format offers to their employees. Some suppliers understood this and developed presentations that reached out to that audience on an educational theme during PaperWeek 2022.
Martin Fairbank has worked in the forest products industry for 31 years,
including many years for a pulp and paper producer and two years with
Natural Resources Canada. With a Ph.D. in chemistry and experience in
process improvement, product development, energy management and lean
manufacturing, Martin currently works as an independent consultant,
based in Montreal. He is also an author, having recently published
Resolute Roots, a history of Resolute Forest Products and its
predecessors over the last 200 years.
Martin Fairbank Consulting
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