Conference will reveal a new hope for pulp and paper

By Luke Geiver | November 08, 2010

The pulp and paper industry is not what it used to be. That is what Jeff Ross, process engineer for the Washington state-based sulfite pulp and tissue mill, Kimberly Clark, says. Fortunately, the pulp and paper industry possesses the potential to increase profitability once again he added, and during the 2011 Pacific West Biomass Conference & Trade Show, Ross will reveal how. His presentation, Conversion of Paper Mill Waste Sludge to Cellulosic Sugar, is only one in a series of presentations devoted to an increasing, and unavoidable question pertaining to the struggling pulp and paper industry. That question--"How can mills in the U.S. survive?"--will be discussed and potentially answered during a track titled, A Game Changer: Energy Production in the Beleaguered Pulp and Paper Industry.

For Ross, the biofuels industry has a lot of potential. "Large quantities (of cellulosic biofuels) have been hard to come by so far," he points out however, "and pulp and paper mills are the key to large-scale production." The key to large-scale production, according to Ross is in the waste mill sludge produced at most mills. Due to recent advances in enzyme technology that allows for the conversion of waste fibers into fermentable sugars, Ross said there is an opportunity for mills to convert waste sludge into sugars and sell those sugars to ethanol producers.

"It’s pretty simple actually," he said. "Currently, we take waste solids that are high in cellulose and press it into a sludge that we either burn or landfill. We can add an intermediate reaction step to hydrolyze the cellulose to glucose with enzymes," he added. "Then we can separate out the glucose, which we can sell or use for something that adds value like, ethanol."

While Ross’s idea for selling sludge is still in the research phase, he notes "that it is very feasible." The issue, he says, with making cellulosic ethanol from paper mill sludge is the economies of scale. Due to limited capacities, most mills would only be able to produce a few million gallons of biofuel a year, making fermentation and distillation expensive, according to Ross. By focusing only on the sludge and selling it, he said, "we can take advantage of the unique opportunities that we have, and let the ethanol producers use their scale and expertise to actually produce ethanol."

If the sludge conversion process is not the right fit for every mill, there are still ways to survive and create a profitable environment once again. Doug Dudgeon, director of process development for Seattle-based engineering firm the Harris Group Inc., explains why. Dudgeon, who will give a presentation titled, Pulp Mills as Modern Biorefinieries: Uniquely Positioned for Fiber, Fuels and Chemicals, says that mills are essentially already biorefinieries in that they produce multiple products including pulp, heat and power. "The opportunity," Dudgeon says, "is to produce additional products, namely fuels and/or chemicals."

For Dudgeon, there are three principle advantages to a mill. First, they already effectively manage feedstock. Second, they have "waste" streams that can be good inputs for producing fuels and/or chemicals. And third, he says, they have infrastructure, both in physical assets and intellectual capital. "Oil refiners are not going to abandon gasoline and diesel production to produce only chemicals, and neither should pulp mills abandon pulp," he says. "Pulp will likely still be the largest piece of the pie, but additional revenue from ethanol, isoprene, or dimethyl glop could give a mill an edge."

Daniel Burciaga, president and CEO of ThermoChem Recovery International Inc., will also be in Seattle to discuss just what one of these mills that utilizes "waste" while working to produce additional fuels and chemicals is like. He will present and provide updates on a proven process being tested today that produces hydrocarbon fuel, biobased chemicals and electricity and will soon be running at of all places--a beleaguered paper mill.

To register, or for more information on the Pacific West Biomass Conference & Trade Show, click here.