Although it may not always be obvious, the influence of the chemical manufacturing industry on our daily lives is immense. Today, I want to touch upon an interesting subject that many of us can inevitably overlook in our busy day-to-day schedules, without realizing how crucial certain industries are to our modern lives.

I mention day-to-day schedules in this particular case because in this article I’m going to cover the importance, production processes and challenges of the paper and pulp industry — two products that we come in contact with every day at work and at home in one way or another.

At Environmental Fluids we are proud allies of a long list of environmentally-friendly and efficient paper manufacturing companies, and we provide chemical solutions to any brands interested in producing paper and pulp-based materials. Contact us today for additional information.

The invention that changed the world forever

For thousands of years, man has felt a need that has never ceased to exist despite the advancement of technology: the necessity of recording ideas in written form, usually with the use of symbols (language, drawing or numbers) that can serve for future reference. The Ancient Egyptians created papyrus before anyone else had thought of such a thing, using it for writing and drawing, although it later also became a material for their clothing and boats.

Yet it wasn’t until the Han dynasty, which began to actually create something similar to our modern-day paper, that the first use of pulp based on mulberry fibres and old rags came to fruition. This ancient civilization improved their techniques by refining their technologies, exported their ideas outside of their distant Eastern lands, and finally the concept of paper reached Baghdad, where it would be taken to Europe (and consequently toward entirely new levels of quality).

Driven by the necessity of replacing unwieldy, fragile scrolls, inventors saw in paper the possibility of creating books and other similar works, allowing scholars and merchants to travel with more space and less weight, as well as making reading much more comfortable. Thus, the first paper mills were born, which depending on the technology and materials used, produced varying qualities of the new material. Evolution continued until paper became what we know today, used in applications ranging from packaging to toiletries, notebooks to gift bags.

The process behind the sheet

The chemical processing industry, an ever-present factor in almost every aspect of modern times, plays a crucial role in the production and refinement of paper and pulp. How so? Well, it is easy to look at a paper sheet and imagine it as simply processed from the wood of a tree, dried, stretched and bleached, but there is much more it to the process of creating paper than just those four steps.

From its raw form, the wood and fiber crops used to make pulp (and subsequently, paper) must be cut down into chips and fragments, allowing a more efficient processing of the raw materials in the next process, known as pulping. Pulping is the step in which the cellulose fibers — the part of the wood that paper manufacturers need — are separated from the rest of the raw material. Pulping can be done in a variety of manners, but the most popular processes used are the Kraft process and the Sulfite process.

The Kraft process involves the treatment of wood chips in a steaming hot mix of water, sodium hydroxide and sodium sulfide. This mixture serves to break the bonds that keep lignin (the natural binder found in wood), hemicellulose and cellulose together. Most of this takes place within a heated tank called a digester, from which the resulting product is blown, screened, washed and bleached, after which the pulp is now ready to be used in the making of paper products.

The Sulfite process, on the other hand, makes use of several different salts of sulfurous acid, all with the intention of extracting the lignin from the wood (inside a digester, just like in the Kraft process). Sulfite processes produce more pulp, which is easier to bleach than the Kraft-made version, but the pulp is weaker and can only be processed from limited types of wood.

Paper chemistry and the environmental challenge

Chemicals play an essential role in the production of pulp and paper, especially when we expect the finished product to be of the highest quality available. Alongside the chemicals used in the processes themselves, which include surfactants, dispersing agents and emulsion breakers sold by Environmental Fluids, there are also valuable additives that provide enhancements to each sheet, bag or wrap available on the market.

Coatings, deinking agents, dyes and bleaches are all applied during the process of making paper, with the intention of improving brightness, strength or water resistance, and both titanium oxide and calcium carbonate provide the shiny white color we are all used to seeing.

The questions present themselves, however: where do these chemicals go? Does the environment suffer because of it? For many years the answer to the latter query was yes, unfortunately. Added to the factor of water contamination from the effluents released by paper mills was the deforestation crisis, with enormous swathes of Amazon rainforest being ripped up to support the paper industry in Brazil, as well as forests in several other nations.

Recent decades have brought a change in philosophy and regulations, and the common rule in developed and developing nations is to plant two seeds for every tree used for pulp and paper production. Chemicals have also been turning greener with time, with bio-based surfactants and cleaner dyes replacing volatile organic compounds and chlorinated chemistries that are well-known for their polluting abilities.

The simple truth is that the world has seen the damage caused by the first steps into the paper industry and has acted accordingly — things can only get better, greener and more efficient now that we know how to do things right. One thing is for sure, EF Materials is not only committed to the production of high-performance, top-quality chemicals, but also the protection of the environment and the people in it.

Let’s work together to make the world a better place. Contact us here today and find out more about our green, high-performance chemical solutions.

— Bryan Esner, Product Manager