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University of Minnesota researchers seek paper-making alternatives

Posted on March 13, 2000

By Max Rust, Minnesota Daily

Minneapolis, Minnesota — One of the most useful and intriguing materials on earth is being run through the mill of change.

Paper is used by nearly everyone, every day. But as the Internet increasingly becomes a primary source of information, the need for paper in the 21st century is called into question. While the jury is still out on the Internet’s impact on paper, scientists on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus and elsewhere are looking for ways to make paper with substances from the agriculture sector—research that, if implemented, could reduce the logging of trees and give struggling farmers a new revenue source.

While contemporary soothsayers speak of a paperless society emerging as electronic-information systems develop, many who study paper say modern technologies have actually created a higher demand for paper.

At a March 7 symposium on the St. Paul campus, coordinated with an art show at the Goldstein Gallery, people from all corners of the paper world discussed how the Internet and other office devices, like fax machines and copiers, are creating a need for more paper than ever.

Tom Biazzo, a researcher with the Potlatch Corporation, a paper company in Cloquet, Minn., said there is a projected 1 to 3 percent increase in demand for paper over the next decade. The increase indicates a turnaround for the industry, which has faced an oversupplied market for the last 10 years.

Biazzo attributed the increase to mergers in the industry as well as increasing numbers of people making printouts from the Internet.

The Internet has facilitated book sales with increasing online transactions, said Sherelyn Ogden, the head of conservation at the Minnesota Historical Society.

Even more paper might be demanded as a result of a changing shipping industry based on online sales. Commodities traditionally shipped to large stores in bulk are increasingly being packaged and shipped directly to the consumer, requiring more packaging, said Larry Newell, the manager of Liberty Paper Inc., a company that recycles paper into cardboard.

As the needs and demands for paper increase, many paper makers are hoping the paper itself will change.

Tree free

Although paper is said to have been invented by the Chinese in 150 A.D., the use of wood-pulp paper has less than a 200-year history.

Before wood, paper makers used materials such as linen and papyrus. A growing field of research aims to reintroduce alternative materials to the paper industry.

“Many people don’t realize that wood has only been used for the past 125 years or so. Wood is the anomaly, not the norm,” said John Stahl, a paper maker from California who has been studying the use of hemp as an alternative to wood. Stahl said hemp is one of the best materials for paper making because it is high in cellulose—the material processed into paper—and because hemp fibers are long, which makes paper stronger.

Ulrike Tschirner, a professor in the University’s Department of Wood and Paper Science who has worked with hemp, is more focused on using wheat and barley straw, research that could help struggling wheat and barley farmers.

“(Wheat straw) is a byproduct they can’t do anything with right now,” Tschirner said of farmers. “If they’re able to sell it to a miller, or if they can build a mill right there where they are, make the pulp and ship the pulp, this would mean some extra income for them.”

Tschirner has also experimented with flax, a plant with properties similar to hemp. In a joint project with Cargill researcher Jagannadh Satyavolu, Tschirner successfully made a paper consisting of 30 percent flax.

Researchers agree introducing alternative agricultural fibers into paper products will occur incrementally, much like recycled-content paper did; whereas recycled paper was first sold with only 10 percent recycled content, today it exists with 100 percent.

“You can never replace wood in the industry,” Satyavolu said. “All the capital put into the paper industry is geared toward wood, so it cannot go away.”

Satyavolu said a major part of the flax project is determining if the machines used for wood chips can accept alternative materials. This is an important step, he said, since paper companies are reluctant to build new machines and technology.

“There’s an old joke that the paper industry is always running to be second in line. They want somebody else to try it first, and if it works, they’ll try it,” Tschirner said.

The use of agricultural fibers is not the only trail being blazed in the paper world. Several biotechnological projects involve creating trees with long fibers and low lignin—the material that holds the cellulose together. Researchers at Mississippi State University are trying to alter the shape of the leaves of a plant called kenaf—that looks similar to the marijuana plant—so inspection helicopters would be able to better identify crops.

Copyright © 2000, Minnesota Daily. All rights reserved.