UBC research targets major industrial energy user

A University of B.C. research team checks out a piece of equipment as part of its investigation into mechanical pulping efficiency.

Nina Winham

Think you know B.C.'s industrial sector? Then, try this skill-testing question: What is the one industrial process that alone uses more than one-tenth of all the electricity generated in B.C. in a year?

The answer: mechanical pulping. The 78 refiners that produce pulp using mechanical pulping technology in B.C. consume a whopping 5,400 Gigawatt hours per year – or 11% of all the electrical energy produced in the province. (Mechanical pulping represents about half of B.C.'s pulping industry – the rest is chemical, or kraft pulping.)

That's why BC Hydro has a Mechanical Pulping Initiative that provides incentives to pulp mills to improve their systems. It's also the reason BC Hydro has joined a consortium of partners to research new ways to conserve energy in the mechanical pulp industry.

"It's a little bit 'out of the box' thinking," says Markus Zeller, BC Hydro's Industrial Technology Innovation Manager, who works with the Power Smart Technology Innovation Program. "Traditionally, we've looked for energy efficiency improvements in proven technology, and equipment or end uses that can be replicated across all sectors. Our programs were based on technology, not a specific industrial sector, so we did things like motors, compressed air, fans and blowers, pumps and lighting – things that could fit all. Now, we're looking at specific sectors and their needs. When you look at mechanical pulping, there's a great opportunity [for energy conservation], even if you only improve it by one to two per cent."

In fact, the research program set out to find reductions of 20% in the electrical energy consumption by mechanical pulping and pulp processing in B.C. (If you do the math, that would return more than 2 per cent of the total electricity produced in B.C. to the provincial grid for other uses.)

Launched three years ago, the five year, $2.4 million program in nine different research areas is carried out by an inter-disciplinary team at the University of British Columbia Pulp and Paper Centre with 14 other industrial and research partners. "We looked at the research our partners were already doing that could have energy implications, and we worked with them to add a focus on energy efficiency and reduction to the research that was already going on – so BC Hydro acts as a catalyst," says Zeller, noting that this approach means BC Hydro's financial investment is highly leveraged.

A key finding so far is that an existing technology, called low consistency refining, offers the opportunity to cut energy consumption in one stage of the mechanical pulping process by two-thirds.

"Low-consistency pulping technology is under-utilized across the province because it is not well understood," says Zeller. Research is helping determine how to best operate the low-consistency process for optimum energy efficiency. Other areas of research include latency removal, novel fibre fractionation, refiner control, novel mechanical pulping, and mechanical strength and linting tendency of low consistency refined pulps.

Already the project has produced exciting results. Says Zeller, "Halfway through our research, we have proven through laboratory, pilot-scale testing that we have already exceeded our target for the entire mechanical pulping efficiency project."

Trials this year have demonstrated that a combination of novel chemical treatments, and multi-stage low-consistency refining have the ability to reduce B.C.'s mechanical pulping energy requirements by 1,000 GWh per year – the 20% reduction targeted.

"Now our challenge is to demonstrate the technology in a natural mill," says Zeller. He says there will be multiple demonstrations at various mills over the next few years (he welcomes any mills that might be interested to get in touch with him). Meanwhile, the other research areas, such as one testing the use of wood shavings instead of chips for pulping, and trials on a UBC-patented pulp screen rotor – promise to further enhance the energy savings that will be identified throughout the course of this project.

Zeller says an additional benefit of BC Hydro's conservation innovation research is the number of graduate students who are gaining deep knowledge of energy efficiency within their chosen field of forest products technology. "These are going to be highly qualified people trained on energy conservation, who will be working for suppliers and industry in the future," he says. "The program helps increase industry involvement in training these people. And it's helping make B.C. a leader in energy research as well."

Zeller says industrial companies with ideas for reducing energy consumption across their industry should consider applying to BC Hydro's Demonstration Project Funding program. Zeller is currently working on other research initiatives relating to mining and to improving daylighting inside buildings. To learn more, companies can contact their Key Account Manager.

"When you look at our province's energy gap [the gap between growing demand and current generation capacity] and consider our proven industrial technologies, if we want to conserve more we really have to look at new technologies – 'step change' technologies – instead of incrementally improving existing processes," says Zeller. "For example, we can improve incandescent light bulbs forever and we'd get one, two three, per cent improvement, whereas a step change technology is compact fluorescent bulbs – a completely different technology doing the same job [with only 25% of the energy consumption]. There is endless opportunity to improve and do things better."

Nina Winham is a Vancouver-based sustainability consultant and writer.