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Innovation strategies

The sphere of action of the Innovation and Technological Development Department relates to increasing the value of the residue streams, the circular economy and creating value by using what already exists in Altri’s mills.

Altri believes it is possible to create value by increasing its mills’ production capacity, but this requires access to more raw material (eucalyptus) to convert into pulp. It is therefore necessary to perform an introspective analysis of the factories and to understand how to extract more economic value from these mills, without impact on wood consumption.

This has been our mission: to find out where we can squeeze out more, either in the end product, or in enhancing secondary streams to create new products, or in cutting variable costs by using innovative technologies.

according to Gabriel Sousa, the head of Altri’s Innovation and Technological Development Department (DIDT)

Starting up the DIDT required identifying and setting out priorities with a series of anchor projects which could demonstrate the potential to the group and portray the department’s practical vision. The starting point was Caima mill – a special manufacturing unit within the Altri organisation. 

Although small when compared with other group’s mills, Caima uses a chemical production process based on magnesium, whose technology concept allows for the production of other things beyond pulp – which Celbi and Celtejo mills, based on kraft process, cannot. 

The association between Caima unique process and eucalyptus wood may generate new renewable based chemicals. Acetic acid and furfural are two base chemicals which result from eucalyptus wood processing and which exist in evaporation condensates from Caima’s production process. They are components which are present in residual sub-streams with limited economical value. 

Since the Caima team had already done its homework, and done it well, by testing the possibility of extracting these chemical components from the residual sub-streams, and thereby raising its commercial value, the project drew the attention of the of Innovation and Technological Development Department (DIDT). 

As Gabriel Sousa explains, “Other people, who are knowledgeable but approach the issue from a distance, are able to look at it through a fresh pair of eyes. We have now a knowledge with a level of maturity and development which enables us, in theory, to decide whether or not we can move forward”. 

In addition to the support provided by Caima’s employees, the DIDT brought in a Swiss company specialised in the technology required for this project. This knowledge was crucial in finding the best way of recovering the two chemicals present in Caima process streams. This team was further complemented by the University of Aveiro, which gave support in the analytical measurements and characterisation of process streams. 

As part of this development process, Gabriel Sousa explains that there is still a need to do “a more detailed assessment, from the standpoint of the economic model and of the markets, so that we can make a decision regarding this project. Indeed, there are other less quantifiable components”. On one hand, there is a risk component to be evaluated, since the processes being adopted are associated with the chemical industry, with which few people in pulp and paper industry are familiar. But on the other hand, there are also benefits which are also less quantifiable. The first is the benefit of technological integration into Caima’s industrial mill. Then there is the benefit of “adding value to a residual sub-stream and eventually to release further pulp mill’s production capacity.

Modus operandi

The first project developed by the DIDT at Caima also served to demonstrate the strategy of how to work on these projects. Even though DIDT has a small team, it is multiplied by leveraging internal resources from other areas from Altri, complemented by external resources which can add value to the project.

Gabriel Sousa, diretor de Inovação e Desenvolvimento Tecnológico da Altri
Gabriel Sousa, diretor de Inovação e Desenvolvimento Tecnológico da Altri

This is what happened with the Swiss company which supplied technology, and with the university of Aveiro. According to Gabriel Sousa, “We could have had a team of 20 people with generic knowledge of pulp production and industrial processes, and possibly we could never achieve the result we did in this amount of time”, he continues “a group of three or four people, specialised in technologies in which we don’t have expertise, can add knowledge where we otherwise wouldn’t have”. 

To support the development process, and in the context of R&D National Funding and Incentive System Portugal 2020, a new project had funding approved: “CaimaChem – Research and develop new techniques for recovery and valorization of acetic acid and furfural from dissolving pulp evaporation condensates” (POCI-01-0247 FEDER-045125), project co-funded within R&D Incentive System from COMPETE 2020, Portugal 2020 and FEDER. 

This project goal is to research new techniques to recover and purify acetic acid and furfural resulting from the condensate stream from the evaporation which occurs during the dissolving pulp production process employed Caima. With this project, new products can be developed which will follow the principles of the Circular Economy. This support R&D project kicked off in April 2019 and will run through until March 2021.

Valorization of wood sugars is another area of research within Altri Group

Another area of research within Altri group is the valorization of Eucalyptus wood sugars, namely xylose and glucose. Xylose is the base for several high value-added products as xylitol (natural sweetener), furfural (solvent), animal protein, among others. In the other hand, glucose is the base for the food industry and it is one of the building blocks for biofuels production.

    To support this initiative, DIDT is looking to partner with Technology Centres and Engineering Companies that have specific expertise on these sectors. In addition, when possible, real practical industrial examples will be used as guidepoints to steer the activity of DIDT on these areas. This will enable Altri group to accelerate the knowhow in adjacent areas to its pulp production core business.

    Innovate circular economy product at the group’s factories

    Working closely with the Industrial Department, a new project was created to evaluate the possibility of using fibres from residue streams existing on the group’s mills for pulp production. 

    The fibres from residue streams usually cannot be reincorporated into the production process because the existing cooking technology cannot cope with such fine material. Currently, such material is therefore separated and sent to the boilers for energy generation. 

    Given the existing restrictions on accessing raw material in Portugal, and in an attempt to reduce dependency on imported wood, the team started to assess the possibility of incorporating and using this material to manufacture pulp. 

    What do they hope to discover? Which technology can be implemented at Celbi, which will enable to use group’s fibres from residue streams in order to produce a pulp equivalent to the pulp currently produced? 

    According to Gabriel Sousa, “We’re talking about manufacturing the same product, not a different one”. The idea is to encourage the circular economy within the group and maximise the value creation. 

    “We are focused in making sure we don’t waste anything which has additional value. This material is already generating value, by being converted into electrical energy, but it will be more valuable if it’s re-directed towards pulp production.”

    Using Sulphur gases to produce a raw material

    Another project under analysis is the possibility of Celtejo treating so-called non-condensable gases, a residue stream from kraft process, by using an alternative technology. Such gases are rich in sulphur and other organic compounds which are usually treated in the recovery boiler for oxidisation and energy production. 

    The DIDT studied the alternative possibility of using this sulphur-rich gas stream by employing an innovative technology to convert the sulphur in these gases into sulphuric acid, which is another chemical used in the pulp production process. The advantage of this is two-fold. 

      On one hand, a residual chemical is recovered and converted into raw material with an economic value. On the other hand, the entire manufacturing process produces electricity, given that the process would itself generate energy.

      Gabriel Sousa tells us “During this process we produced a large volume of important information regarding the technology used, cases in which it has already been implemented, the difficulties involved, the risks and the assessment of its impact on the mill.”