The Research Story

Some 60% of all trees planted for commercial use are used by the pulp and paper industry, yet a large proportion of biomass is left behind on harvesting (branches, leaves, bark). By re-engineering and optimising processes, the PRU seeks to extract the full benefit of the tree as well as other by-products from pulp and papermaking.

Further, the opportunities for fibre and waste beneficiation are boundless. As demand for conventional use of paper diminishes, the industry supports precompetitive research, innovation and development through PAMSA’s Process Research Unit (PRU). The unit was formed to expand a regional research initiative and promote the sustainability of the local pulp, paper and packaging industry.

 

Photo: Mondi
Photo: Mondi

Apart from its MSc bursary programme, the unit coordinates research for the development of processes to efficiently utilise biomass feedstock (trees) for conversion to bio-products (paper and chemicals) and energy with minimal environmental impact. It also seeks to develop academic/research centres of excellence, both locally and abroad, and engages in collaborative partnerships with industry and government agencies.

Department of Science and Technology introduced a Sector Innovation Fund to encourage research and innovation and PAMSA has been granted R9 million over three years to pursue various pre-competitive research projects which can then be further developed by individual companies should they show promise.

Current PRU activities

  • Studies at the universities of Pretoria and Stellenbosch at Masters and Doctoral level for the conversion of paper waste sludge using pyrolysis techniques to create bio-oils and char have produced a number of promising results on how to maximise product yields and calorific values. The use of catalysts in the optimising process has been shown to be a significant route to the optimisation of thermal efficiency.
  • The extraction of valuable chemicals from process streams using novel separation techniques such as pervaporation and nanofiltration is being explored by the North West University.
  • High solids fermentation of paper sludge to bioethanol using low enzyme doses has been shown to be a viable technique in reducing the waste burden on landfill sites by the University of Stellenbosch.
  • The University of Kwa-Zulu Natal has embarked on a PhD study of the lignocellulosic carbon flows in the South African forest products industry. This will provide important insight into the fate of this carbon and its effect on the carbon footprint of the industry. Five water reduction studies have been completed at four different paper mills.
  • Current technologies under development include:
    • Beneficiation of sawdust waste, fly ash and green liquor dregs
    • Beneficiation of mill sludges:
      • Production of bioplastic polymers
      • Production of biogas
      • Production of nanocrystalline cellulose from waste fibres
    • System closure and improved water treatment technologies
    • Technologies and methods to improve quality and efficiency of dissolving pulp production process;
    • Advanced testing and analytical support for pulp and paper production processes:
      • Pitch/deposits control
      • Papermaking chemistry
      • Odours in paper products

Biotechnical initiative

Pyrolysis is the thermochemical decomposition of organic material at elevated temperatures in the absence of oxygen (or any halogen). It involves the simultaneous change of chemical composition and physical phase, and is irreversible. (Photo: istockphoto)
Pyrolysis is the thermochemical decomposition of organic material at elevated temperatures in the absence of oxygen (or any halogen). It involves the simultaneous change of chemical composition and physical phase, and is irreversible. (Photo: istockphoto)

As part of the PRU’s focus on the development of processes for the beneficiation of paper industry waste streams and surplus biomass, research has been conducted into how catalytic pyrolysis can be used to extract chemicals and energy that can be used as feedstock in our own and other industries.

These may be commercially exploited in the manufacture of liquid fuels and fertilisers and, if further developed, could potentially improve the industry’s environmental footprint and mitigate the effects of carbon tax.

A portion of the funds required to carry out this research come from the R9 million investment awarded to PAMSA by the Department of Science and Technology’s Sector Innovation fund. The project involves the collective resources of the universities of Stellenbosch and Pretoria, which will draw interns from local technical institutions in the operation of a planned pyrolysis pilot plant.

The goal of the research is to develop unique bioprocesses that will lead to the up-skilling of the local workforce, developing and improving the expertise of local academic institutions and taking to market commercially viable processes. The development of a catalyst that has the potential to significantly increase the calorific value of bio-oils will result in the registering of patents, which would allow the development of an economically viable liquid bio-fuels market.