Researchers from Eindhoven University of Technology recently teamed up with paper industry specialists to develop a new solvent that could drastically change the way the world makes paper. The breakthrough solvent could extract cellulose from wood chips much faster than traditional methods, cutting the industry’s energy footprint at least 40 percent and yielding 20 percent less CO2 emissions.
Image via Eindhoven University of Technology
Even in today’s digital world, humans still consume a huge amount of paper. Average worldwide annual paper consumption is over 100 pounds (48 KG per person) with those in North America accounting for over 1/3 of total consumption. Sadly, the worst part isn’t just the fact that less than half of it gets recycled–it’s the energy waste. According to a 2002 report from the American Forest and Paper Association, paper manufacturing is the 3rd largest user of fossil fuels worldwide and the largest industrial user of water per pound of finished product.
The new solvent, developed by TU/e professor Maaike Kroon, is known as a ‘deep eutectic solvent’ (DES). In order to turn trees into paper, manufacturers must first separate the basic vegetable material (lignocellulose), into lignin and cellulose. These two elements are very difficult to separate, so for many decades, the industry used high pressures and temperatures, which consume huge amounts of energy and water. Dissolving the wood chips has up to now not been an option because lignine is normally insoluble. But the DES, which Kroon has patented, accomplishes this task easily.
In addition to being entirely vegetable-based and biodegradable, the new solvent produces very pure lignin, which the paper industry can use to develop new applications and markets such as biodegradable plastics. The European paper industry has high expectations of the new solvent. “This is a game changer, and it means the paper industry will look very different 20 years from now,” said Henk van Houtum, chairman of Royal VNP, the Netherlands Association of Paper and Cardboard Producers.