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Breakthrough for a greener paper industry


A new approach that makes paper from straw, which cuts production costs and is kinder to the planet, is one step closer to reality thanks to an investment award of £90,500 from NESTA (the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) – the organisation that nurtures UK creativity and innovation.

The innovation is the brainchild of a Surrey-based environmental company, BioRegional MiniMills Ltd. The driving force behind this company is a former nurse, Sue Riddlestone who became very active in the environmental field after starting a family. Following a stint of voluntary work for the eco-lobby group Greenpeace, she co-founded BioRegional as an environmental charity. It works in partnership with industry to develop sustainable production and lifestyles through practical projects. The MiniMills offshoot was established in 1997 to develop new, cleaner technology to make paper on a small scale. Sue is joined by a range of experts from the paper processing industry.

There are reported to be nearly 9,000 paper and board mills worldwide, and the demand for paper is growing at a rate of 3% per annum. Current mills are huge operations run by multi-national companies. However, MiniMills’ new process would allow more independent paper makers to compete with these large-scale processes. Their method would facilitate the use of a much greater variety of raw materials, including straw - four million tonnes of straw goes unused in the UK annually - and wood from sustainably-managed, smaller woodlands for use in papermaking. This would provide income generation for both farmers and foresters.

The new process also provides a more efficient and ecologically sound method for treating effluent, otherwise known as ‘black liquor’, from the pulp-making procedure. Current processes for effluent treatment are carried out at high temperatures which requires high levels of energy. The recovered product is very corrosive and precautions must be taken against the risk of explosion.

MiniMills’ method liberates organic matter present in the black liquor and recycles them as process fuel, as well as recovering sodium hydroxide for re-use in pulping. The reactions take place at relatively low temperatures.

Since 1997, pilot-scale laboratory trials have been carried out with support from six paper companies, two environmental charities, the Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) and the Department for Trade and Industry (DTI). Having reached the proof of concept stage, the next vital step for MiniMills is to build a £6m demonstration plant. NESTA’s support will go a long way in helping the organisation achieve this aim as well as enabling them to secure intellectual property rights (IPR) and provide legal and technical expertise.

Earlier this month, the team held open days at the black liquor treatment plant at Frogmore Mill in Hemel Hempstead. Excellent feedback was received from members of the paper industry who were invited to observe the plant in operation and discuss the potential for becoming partners to commercialise and promote the technology.

The latest trials show that the BioRegional MiniMills offer improved drainage, less fibre damage and faster pulping. The process uses technology tried and tested in other areas of manufacturing such as food and industrial waste processing, and therefore the technical risk is minimised.

Mark White, NESTA Invention and Innovation Director, said:

“We are delighted to be supporting the MiniMills process which has the potential to penetrate a large global market in the production of paper, as well as bring major environmental benefits in an area of historic difficulty for the industry. At NESTA we are always on the look-out for innovative ideas for new products and services, willing to back them at the early stage that other funders seem to find difficult to handle.”

Joseph Meaney | alfa
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