Disruptive concepts and novel approaches are needed to achieve ambitious sustainability goals in the paper industry

Dr. Michael Weiss, Vice President New Business & Research at Voith, Heidenheim, talks about sustainable use of resources, the desire for stringent, reliable framework conditions and new technologies.

Which technologies do you use to support the transformation towards a circular bioeconomy?

As a full-line supplier, Voith Paper provides holistic and customer-oriented solutions from a single source, for an efficient and sustainable papermaking process. With the XcelLine paper machines, Voith offers efficient papermaking for every paper grade, and with the innovative BlueLine stock preparation products, customers benefit from maximum efficiency and raw material yield. The digitalisation solutions from our Papermaking 4.0 portfolio are playing an increasingly important role in papermaking to maximise resource efficiency and plant availability. The wide range of consumables and spare parts that Voith supplies to the paper industry also makes an important contribution to lowest energy consumption, high machine efficiency and plant availability.

In your opinion, what are the current challenges for companies moving towards more sustainable paper production, and how can mechanical engineering help?

There are several factors to be mentioned here, and they all need to be seen in the context of high cost pressure on paper manufacturers. One very important factor is the availability and quality of the raw material for paper production i.e. cellulose fibres and recycled paper. In Europe, the recycling rate is already at a very high level. Such high recycling rates require a preparation of the recovered paper that is particularly gentle on the fibres, for example, to maintain the strength potential of the raw material. Such technologies and solutions will continue to gain importance as the recycling rate increases, since the quality of the raw material and high-quality stock preparation strongly influence the overall economy and efficiency of the papermaking process. With our BlueLine stock preparation, Voith offers the world’s most resource-conserving process concept on the market.

Another factor is to minimise water consumption in paper production. Here, we have made great progress over the last decades, by closing the production water cycles step-by-step. This year, Voith and Meri presented AquaLine Zero, a forward-looking water management concept with a completely closed water cycle. All water used in paper production is cleaned by an in-house purification system with state-of-the-art treatment technology and is fed back into production as recycled water in a resource-saving manner. This means that no process water is discharged from the paper mill and the actual fresh water consumption is reduced to only about 1.5 litres per kilogram of paper produced.

Decarbonisation will pose major challenges for paper producers and other industries in the years and decades to come. The Green Deal adopted by the EU envisages carbon neutrality in the EU by 2050, and greenhouse gas emissions are to be reduced by 55 percent by 2030, measured against 1990 emission levels. To achieve the ambitious carbon reduction targets in the paper industry, disruptive concepts and novel approaches are needed in addition to the continuous development of existing technologies. The development and implementation of these concepts and technologies is part of our sustainability strategy at Voith.

Are the challenges in your industry different regionally or the same globally?

Sustainability, decarbonisation and the associated changes in our industry are global developments. For example, the Chinese government has also declared its goal of being carbon neutral by 2060, and the USA, under new political leadership, has rejoined the Paris climate agreement. However, these developments towards a sustainable bioeconomy are most advanced in Europe.

The leading industrial nations want to achieve climate neutrality by the middle of the century. Do we need political support for the bioeconomy? If so, what do you specifically expect from policymakers?

It is the task of politicians to create clear framework conditions and make reliable decisions in order to provide investment security for all players in the markets and along the value chain. This is necessary in order to successfully implement the transformation towards a circular bioeconomy and, at the same time, to further increase the profitability and competitiveness of paper producers. Another important point will be to pave the way for the further expansion of renewable energies. In this context, the necessary infrastructure, such as transport networks and storage systems, must also be promoted. In addition, the development and market introduction of low-carbon-emission production technologies should be supported and accelerated.

What role does the topic of sustainable use of resources play in your research and development?

The trend toward sustainable papermaking, and in particular the decarbonisation of the papermaking process, already play a very important role in Voith’s research and development and are a central pillar of Voith’s strategy. Important focus areas here include reducing energy and water consumption in the papermaking process, further increasing the recycling rate, and improving raw material yield and quality. In addition, new fields of application for the raw material paper and cellulose fibres are being developed, for example as a sustainable substitute for mineral oil-based packaging solutions. Other important criteria and development goals are the further expansion of digitalisation and the continuous improvement of the cost and resource efficiency of our machinery and equipment portfolio.

Voith played a key role in the founding of Modellfabrik Papier gGmbH and is now one of 17 partner companies from the paper manufacturing and its supplier industry. The primary goal of this initiative is to identify and research approaches to make the entire papermaking process climate-neutral and sustainable. Through innovative and disruptive research approaches, the goal is to save 80 percent of the energy required in the papermaking process. With a view to further closing material cycles, Voith is involved in another cross-industry initiative: the 4evergreen Alliance. The goal of this initiative is to increase the recycling rate of fibre-based packaging to 90 percent by 2030.