Fibria: a global giant in tailoring eucalyptus pulp for tissue production

Eucalyptus pulp and Brazil are very closely intertwined. When eucalyptus was first introduced for papermaking in the 1970s it was viewed as an ‘exotic’ fiber. Today it accounts for almost one third of the world’s market pulp, or about 16 million tons in 2012.

Perini Journal

Fibria, the world’s largest market pulp producer which was created in 2009 through a merger of Aracruz and VCP, is a giant in the tissue business supplying 54% of its pulp to tissue manufacturers. It has also been one of the foremost pioneers in the use of eucalyptus pulp for papermaking, especially for tissue. Perini Journal recently spoke with Dr. Paulo Pavan, the company’s process and product development manager.

In the 1970s eucalyptus was an exotic new pulp species that had been introduced for papermaking by some Brazilian pulp producers. Originally native to Australia, eucalyptus showed promise as a fast-growing, low-cost wood whose fibers could be used for a wide variety of grades including printing and writing papers, tissue, carton board and specialty papers.

The growth has been phenomenal, as shown in figure 1, with bleached eucalyptus kraft pulp (BEKP) growing over the past four decades from 2% of the world’s market pulp to 31%. Production has risen from around 400,000 tons a year to more than 16 million.

Fiber morphology is unique. Paulo Pavansays that in the 1970s, long before he was involved in the pulp business, a major effort was made to understand the fiber fundamentals of eucalyptus versus other hardwoods such as birch. “A very extensive SWOT analysis was undertaken and it was quickly realized that eucalyptus is a very special pulp for tissue because of the softness characteristics it adds to the sheet.

“This is mostly because of the very narrow length distribution of the fibers (see figure 2), as well as the higher fiber count in terms of fibers per gram and the low coarseness.These attributes were recognized by some major tissue producers and by the 1980s there were close partnerships established with Brazilian eucalyptus suppliers to work to improve the fibers so that they could be used on a large scale in tissue.”

The rest, you might say, is history. But it was not so simple as it still took a long time to convince tissue makers to replace softwood with hardwood. Tissue is all about softness and strength, with these two often opposing properties getting more or less influence depending on which region of the world you are in. For example in North America softness is a key attribute of bath tissue and quite often is made with single ply technology. In Europe strength is generally given a higher priority and multi-ply is much more common. The trick is to try to get the required softness and strength at the best economic value. Tailor making the pulp thus came into the picture.

Tailor-made for the market. “Over the years we have made, and are continuing to make, important advances in tailor making pulp for specific tissue products,” says Paulo Pavan. “Innovations based on fiber properties involve investments in R&D, process improvement and capital equipment but we clearly see benefits both to ourselves and to the tissue makers of tailor making fibers for specific products based on a close cooperation. It’s a joint investment to give joint value to both parties all through the chain from forests through to the launch of a premium tissue product. This is possible through a good long-term relationship.”

Fibria has numerous programs for ongoing process and product development work, such as softwood replacement and finished product properties improvement for tissue. The key properties of softness, strength, bulk and absorbency continue to be sought after using various means throughout the entire pulp and paper making process. This includes of course cooking, bleaching and refining, as well as forming, pressing and drying on the paper machine.

Finding better properties in the forest. Fibria is also looking at the possibility of growing specific trees for specific properties, meaning looking at the forest as a source of product development. However Paulo Pavan says this strategy is quite complicated to achieve in an economical manner due to the fact that both wood logistics and pulp logistics have a huge impact on costs.

In any case, the future certainly looks good for eucalyptus pulp as a source of tissue making fiber. With lots of land in Brazil for fast growing eucalyptus trees, and a very high output per hectare, combined with advanced technology and competence Fibria can produce high quality pulp at a low cost and assure papermakers of long-term supply. In addition the FSC certification that its mills have will certainly be an advantage.

Is it really a commodity? Pulp is often seen as a commodity, and pulp producers constantly strive, with sometimes limited success it must be said, to show that it is not a commodity. Perhaps in the near future that will change as pulp producers are more clearly profiling the specific advantages that their pulps give to tissue products and tissue producing companies. Softness, strength, absorbency, certification, etc can increasingly be tailored to the specific demands required.

Tissue manufacturers also struggle with the commodity-trap syndrome as consumers tend to have fairly low brand loyalty with respect tissue products. Some forward-thinking companies have been active in using these fiber modifications to give their products and brands unique properties.

Fibers are by far the most important raw material, and cost component, in the production of tissue. Any improvement in paper properties, or cost competitiveness, that can be gained through more innovative use of these fibers seems certain to be a winning proposition. *

  • Fig.1 the very high uniformity of the eucalyptus fiber length is a key advantage
  • Fig.2
  • Premium bath tissue, both 1-ply and 2-ply, has made good use of the unique characteristics of the eucalyptus fiber
  • Very uniform eucalyptus logs being transported from the FSC certified forests to the mill
  • the land-use model at Fibria
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