Alberta-Pacific pulp and paper mill transitions to biorefining
Al Ward, president and COO of Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries Inc. (Al-Pac), hopes that the average consumer will pay a small premium for biobased products like windshield washer fluid made from biomethanol. Ward explained his reasoning and hope for biobased products to Biorefining Magazine, and why he believes pulp and paper mill facilities like his face a lucrative financial future as they transition towards modern biorefinieries. “I guess I really started looking at opportunities in this space 10-11 years ago,” Ward said. “This was driven by the need to mitigate threats to our business due to the cyclical nature of pulp and paper markets, and the recent increase of low-cost competition in the southern hemisphere.”
Ward and his team at Alberta-Pacific formed a team of consultants in 2008 to research and explore the possibilities of producing renewable energy via fuels, chemicals or power, a research effort he said most mills today should be making. “Making an investment in research might be a good choice for mills prepared to make efficiency enhancements to set the stage for the long term,” he said. Beginning as far back as 1998, mills like Alberta-Pacific began experiencing tighter profit margins, some down to three percent, while mills in places like India or Brazil averaged nine and eight percent respectively. The move to a biorefining-based operation strategy, he said, is about doing more with what you already have and targeting regional markets.
“The change from pulp mill to biorefinery isn’t going to happen overnight,” he said, noting that significant changes need to happen over the next 10-15 years. “It’s a societal change. We are using more electronic devices in our daily lives and some of them are replacing traditional paper products.” But, according to Ward, that isn’t a bad thing. “The good thing,” he said, “is byproducts from pulp mills can be used to produce the very same electronic products that are taking away traditional paper markets. We are working,” he added, “at taking a challenge and turning it into opportunity.”
The opportunity at the Alberta-Pacific mill has in part already been realized. The mill received a $62.9 million grant from the Government of Canada’s Pulp and Paper Green Transformation Fund based on the amount of black liquor the mill produced. Ward said the mill has since built a new transmission line, constructed a power substation and made all the tie-ins. “We are currently working on the installation of a new generator and steam conducting turbine to utilize low pressure steam to create additional renewable energy from the steam we already produce.”
Ward hopes the work thus far at the plant will help his mill produce products like biodiesel or biomethanol in the future. Ward hopes the work thus far at the plant will help his mill produce products like biodiesel or biomethanol in the future. But even before those efforts become reality, Ward has plans for nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC), or as he calls it, the “Kevlar of the forestry industry.” NCC are nano-sized crystals from the cellulose in the wood pulp that can be used in textiles, pharmaceuticals, or even as Ward points out, bullet proof vests. “It’s very high-tech, and research continues to look at a variety of potential products, such as high strength coatings for paneling,” and other products like bullet proof vests and roll-on truck box liners.
Ward believes efforts to extract NCC for use in such products may happen sooner than other projects at his mill, and, when the mill does become a true biorefinery as he hopes it will, hundreds of millions of dollars will have been invested into his mill.