26 Jan. 2022. UK paper and board production primarily uses pulp derived from recovered paper (8 million tonnes/year), however, there is insufficient resource to meet current UK demand (>12 million tonnes/year Supported by Innovate UK through the Transforming the Foundation Industries competition, the HiFib project (IUK 10002990) aims to access additional UK sources of fibre for pulp whilst addressing the business need for lighter, stronger paper and board.

This is highly desirable because their use will help reduces the quantity and weight of packaging and the associated transportation costs and greenhouse gas emissions. In addition to paper for recycling, conventional process sidestreams will be evaluated, as well as readily available fibre sources from agri-food by-products (AFBPs) such as brewers’ spent grain. The consortium consists of Agrifoodx Limited, Axchem International Ltd (the project lead), Biopower Technologies Ltd, Renaissance Chemicals Ltd, DS Smith plc and PITA, with Brunel University London acting as advisors.

The HiFib project will build on a patented ultrasonication process that can produce highly-fibrillated cellulose fibres (HFCFs) that contribute to the strength of the finished product, however, it is an energy intensive process. Mechanical, chemical and biological pre-processing methods will be examined to reduce overall energy consumption and increase process cost-effectiveness and sustainability, whilst the exploitation of currently wasted or under-utilised fibre sources will help meet the growing demand for sustainable packaging. Additives to aid water drainage and drying of HFCF enriched pulp, reduce paper breakage and facilitate high speed paper production will also be optimised to support manufacturing efficiency and sustainability.

The global market for materials that can improve paper strength and reduce weight such as HFCFs is anticipated to be worth >£550 million by 2025 with an annual growth rate of 21.3%. Successful technology translation to scalable engineering designs will provide benefits such as reduced importation, greater resilience and supply chain security, creation and support of jobs in the UK paper and chemicals industries and related technology sectors. In addition to the economic and environmental benefits, this project will aid progress towards achievement of net-zero carbon emissions and a more circular bioeconomy.