TECHNOLOGY and greenery don’t mix well. Some greens are technophobes. Most environmental policies focus on prices, consumption and subsidies to solar and wind power, which are not at the cutting edge. The list of technological breakthroughs is short. One of the most promising is carbon capture and storage, which neutralises emissions of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels. A big project was being built at Mongstad in Norway—but the Norwegian government has just pulled the plug on it.
All the more reason, then, to look with interest—and a measure of scepticism—at an effort by European pulp and paper companies to slash their emissions through technological change. This week they announced some ideas which, if adopted by the whole industry, would cut its energy use by at least a quarter and its output of CO2 by more than half by 2050. The ideas will test how far technology developed by companies can reduce global warming.
Pulp and paper is a big energy consumer—the world’s fifth-largest industrial user. The World Resources Institute, a think-tank, put the industry’s CO2 emissions at about 500m tonnes worldwide in 2005. However, European companies are relatively green: the Confederation of European Paper Industries (CEPI), a trade association, says its members’ emissions were 46m tonnes in 2011. Pulp mills in under-regulated places also produce disgusting gunk. A mill on the pristine shores of Lake Baikal, in Russia, has been dumping bleach into the world’s biggest body of (once) freshwater for many years.
Facing demands for deep cuts in CO2 emissions, CEPI decided to see if technological change could yield more than just marginal improvements. It set up two teams of scientists and businesspeople, each under a former chief executive (of Smurfit Kappa, the fourth-largest European papermaker, and Mondi, the fifth). The teams set up a common knowledge base because the idea was to test creativity, not proprietary information. They also sought ideas from outsiders with carbon-reduction programmes, such as Tata Steel. Each team came up with four ideas. On November 27th a jury chose a winner.
To make paper, you either grind woodchips mechanically to separate the fibres, or cook them with chemicals to remove the lignin, which binds the fibres together. You then dissolve the fibres in vast quantities of water and push them through a slit into a machine that squeezes out the water and dries the sheets.
The winning proposal would do away with all this grinding and chemical cooking. Instead, it would use things called deep eutectic solvents to dissolve wood and separate out the lignin. These solvents occur naturally: plants produce them during droughts. They would essentially turn papermaking into a biochemical business, cutting primary energy use by 40%. They would also generate useful by-products, such as pure lignin, a raw material for bulk chemicals, and a form of cellulose used in high-value chemicals. One of the requirements of the project was that the ideas should add value, not just cut cost.
Most of the energy now used in making paper goes on drying the sheets. So making it without water would also cut energy consumption. The teams came up with two ways of doing that. One would separate the fibres with steam (using less water). The other would suspend the fibres in a viscous fluid and then expel the fluid by modifying the viscosity around the fibres. This idea has been pinched from penguins. To escape from seals underwater, the birds release trapped air bubbles which form a thin layer of air around their plumage, reducing friction.
At the moment these ideas exist as pilot projects or in the laboratory, but not commercially. The most important test of their usefulness is therefore yet to be passed.
Even so, several lessons have emerged. The main one is that there are technological solutions to climate change. “We were amazed at what we found,” says CEPI’s Marco Mensink. Some of the ideas not only cut emissions but take energy-intensive firms into new areas—biochemicals, in the case of pulp and paper. Next, companies can do lot about climate change themselves. They do not need to wait for a nudge from governments, although CEPI also wants the European Union to put some money where its mouth is and support more basic research.
Last, the project was unusual in that companies collaborated over technology. Normally they compete. The pulp and paper firms managed to work together by confining their efforts to “generic pre-competitive concepts”—ie, basic breakthroughs. The hope is that they will now compete to implement them.
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