Code word: collaboration. Cepi is working across Europe to implement programmes that connect paper mills to each other and to other industries in the sector’s supply chain. Working together is the only way to find the solutions which will bring about the paper mill of the future.
The focus of the industry is currently turned towards ongoing geopolitical and economic developments. Recent months have witnessed events that have completely upset the international balance of power, so much so that the present is uncertain and the future unpredictable. But when it comes to business, planning is crucial. It is necessary to know what direction to take in order to understand where to invest, and what innovations to pursue in order to endure and compete.
In this perspective, what path does the paper industry wish to take?
Annita Westenbroek, Energy Innovations Manager of the Confederation of European paper industries Cepiaddressed the topic at the Aticelca 2022 Congress, analysing the state of the industry with an eye toward 2030.
Rethinking the process
The premise is simple: something must be changed. This change involves innovation, which the industry is already pursuing, but the pace of change must quicken. «If we really want to improve, we have to accelerate» says Westenbroek. «The speed of development that we have been following for the past two decades will not be enough. The real issue is how we can do this».
The first consideration concerns the element with the highest economic weight for a paper mill, the energy. «We have already done a lot in the past decades, and in recent years we have managed to significantly reduce our CO2footprint» (figure 1).
It will certainly be necessary to rethink the papermaking process, finding new and more efficient ways to produce. First of all, by acting where the largest energy expenditure is concentrated, the process of drying paper. Cepi’s Energy Innovations Manager explains that about 70 percent of energy used by the paper industry goes into the process of drying paper. «We need to make our sector even less energy-intensive» she insists. The increased use of renewable energy, including from biomass, is one possible solution (figure 2). For now, there is not enough renewable energy for the sector to rely on, and access to waste biomass depends on local factors which cannot be met everywhere across Europe. One solution is to significantly reduce the industry’s energy needs. Having technological innovations available is not enough, one needs to create what Westenbroek calls «an enabling environment. It is crucial to create the conditions where we can also feel the push for change». This is where the European association’s role comes in. Cepi supports the industry, helping it to become aware of the possibilities offered by the market and to understand which technologies best suit its needs, while promoting innovation.
Communication is the first step. «One of our activities is to provide an overview of the tools, products and technologies available that could help build the paper mill of the future». Solutions ranging from renewable energy to energy saving technologies, via circularity and digitisation. The latter, Westenbroek says, is seen as a major factor in the development of the industry and will play a key role in the coming years (figure 3).
In order to «define key aspects and identify the conditions to really succeed in getting the maximum benefit from each tool», Cepi organises “toolkit sessions” on different topics with a group of front-running companies called the Energy Solutions Forum (ESF). The goal of the toolkit sessions is to help understand, together with companies in the sector, which technologies are most appropriate and useful for their growth and which ones are best suited for the industry. The meetings will also help the association gather information on any difficulties or obstacles that companies face when it comes to the application of a particular solution, or identify the technologies which are, in fact, not very useful. In addition, all of this will allow Cepi’s lobbying of the EU Institutions to be refined towards supporting the right technologies. It will also help to better communicate the actual needs of paper mills to the rest of the supply chain, including to the industry’s suppliers. «However, we need to be aware of all aspects, and it is essential that companies communicate their issues, so that we can exchange views. It is only together that we can bring about change».
Promoting… disrupting innovation
The second pillar for building the paper mill of the future consists in promoting innovation (figure 4). This is done by stimulating joint R&D projects at both community and individual country levels. But above all, according to the manager, it is necessary to stimulate the most innovative, most «disrupting» technologies. «We have currently identified three possible pathways» says Westenbroek. These are three technologies that could change the industry’s production model: «superheated steam, water removal without evaporation, and waterless papermaking» (figure 5). These are real possibilities for the paper mill of the future, as they can make a difference in terms of costs, especially affecting the energy consumption of paper mills. Applying these technologies could result in energy savings of over 80 percent.
Superheated steam technology enables the efficient recovery of latent heat, ensuring minimal heat loss and, as a consequence, very high efficiency. The second innovation is a drying system, in which the water in the papermaking process is extracted without the use of heat and evaporation. An operation that normally involves a great deal of energy expenditure. This system has proven to be very effective, as it also leads to a much faster process, shortening paper drying and leading to energy savings of up to 90 percent. The third and final disruptingtechnology consists in waterless paper production, or dry forming, which is capable of eliminating the use of water in the sheet formation phase. With this technology, the paper mill will no longer need to resort to water treatment that currently weighs down production in terms of energy, chemicals, and costs.
All innovations have a common denominator, they act on the part of the production cycle that is involved in paper drying. Their goal «is to achieve energy savings of over 80 percent in this very energy-intensive part of the process. These are huge challenges and there is a lot of research going on». But once again companies cannot do this alone: they should work together, and with suppliers.
The development of these and other new technologies, and the overall growth of the pulp and paper industry, are linked to the ability of its constituent parts to pull together. «It is crucial to have cooperation projects, where all stakeholders, ranging from research players to the companies in the sector, up to their suppliers, work together» Westenbroek continues. «However, we also need to create a favourable regulatory environment».
Cooperation will also enable lobbying efforts, as «we need financial resources and regulatory support, to be able to implement change and make sure that our willingness for change is brought to the attention of politicians, so that they can lend their support to the industry». For an industry to be recognised, supported and helped in its growth path, it must first show that it is active and vibrant: «we have to show that our sector is taking the initiative to innovate, only then will they believe in us. This is what we want to do in Cepi: we want to tell the outside world what this industry is capable of doing, and what it is doing».
Once again, Westenbroek reiterates the importance of intra-industry collaboration. «We need to work on common technology platforms, come to a better definition of our demands, understand if and how the changes we hope for can actually be implemented in our companies, and learn how to leverage the information we gather from our businesses. For example, through the toolkit sessions that we organise on different topics, we also initiate collaborations with other sectors,» as happened with the heat pump industry, with which the European association has initiated strategic collaborations that are currently under way. «We need to discuss together, to have solutions that can be standardised so that there is a better fit to the rest of the industry, making the solutions themselves less expensive, and already ensuring energy savings in the near future. We need to work together even on the implementation of technological efforts, for example, thinking about how to reconceive and redesign a paper machine capable of implementing these innovations, and of course work together on training programmes».
Ultimately, it is about sharing mutual needs and knowledge along the supply chain to develop beneficial solutions. «Only by sharing information can we create solutions that are really usable», Cepi’s Energy Innovations Manager continues. She emphasises how joint action can also lead to getting attention from policymakers, with much faster regulations and certification procedures.
Lastly, Westenbroek mentions the pan-European, «Reinvest 2050» programme https://reinvest2050.eu/. The programme involves several pulp and paper companies that have invested in sustainable solutions, including some sterling examples from Italy. With «Reinvest 2050», the paper industry demonstrates what investments are being made in the sector to continuously reduce emissions and mitigate climate change. Every two years the most interesting case studies, showing the sector companies’ efforts to improve their energy efficiency and switch to renewable energy sources are shared within the industry and with European Institutions.
What Cepi hopes for, Westenbroek concludes, is for people to work together: «We want to foster innovation and further develop all the good things that the paper industry is already doing».