What the future holds?

16 November 2021


Cellulose and carbon – what can be done with this waste? HONEXT is one of the latest propositions of panelboard products made using alternative materials. WBPI correspondent Geoff Rhodes report

How can we use timber resources better? This was a conversation topic that has been a theme for many years and the emergence of MDF from its infancy in the late 1960s to the significant 118,000,000m3 installed and planned capacity globally now, sets the scene of what is possible if all of the correct ingredients come together.

The MDF story, which evolved initially from a fibreboard ‘mistake’ in Deposit, New York has morphed since then and over 50+ years, into a global industry of enormous scale and with fascinating technological breakthroughs.

Fast forward to 2021 and across the globe it has probably never been more important or urgent for us to understand, explore and exploit all types of timber resources and their derivatives and to look at the multiple products, their properties, and benefits and for the wider wood product trading sectors to then explain and communicate these realities clearly to the international marketplace.

Based on current forecasts of material demand, various international reports and studies suggest that a significant global timber deficit is anticipated in the years ahead, so it is incumbent on industry to explore all possibilities of raw material sources, recycling and to waste absolutely nothing.

So, we must also acknowledge and consider right now that wood (and let’s include all cellulose and wood fibre-based products as well in this generic description) is increasingly recognised as the prime manufacturing and construction raw material for our age.

At a time when we also know we must reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and other finite resource-based materials, wood is the ultimate in natural renewability.

When curbing and mitigating climate change is our prime imperative, trees absorb the main greenhouse gas, CO2, and wood stores it through its lifetime. It is low energy to process, light, strong and versatile. In construction, new products such as more advanced wood-based sheet materials, modified timber, and engineered timber products, including glulam and cross -laminated timber, are also enabling us to build bigger, taller, and more technically ambitiously in wood.

So, dealing in a material with an increasingly technical, but positive story behind it, that is being used in ever more advanced, higher specification applications, new technologies and new products are emerging that are appropriate to our time. Realising and valuing this potential and delivering the sector’s messages to specifiers, end users and ultimately consumers will be an evolving and fresh dynamic for historically a most traditional of industries.

PULP AND PAPER INDUSTRY WASTE

Through long term research things are really changing so now let us enter the world and terminologies within the pulp and paper industry with its waste, its paper sludge, OCC and the vocabulary of up-cycling and enzymes!

Sludge is a generic term for the residue that results from pulp and paper-making. To better understand its properties, it is necessary to review how it is formed. Generally, it is the solid residue recovered from the wastewater stream of the pulping and paper-making process.

Water treatment facilities for the paper industry produce a significant amount of filtration residue and ways of disposing of the industrial paper sludge generated in the production process need to be found. If we look at the global pulp and paper industry in 2021, it is estimated that more than 7 million tons of paper sludge must be disposed of, with the majority of this currently going to landfill.

OCC (old corrugated cardboard) paper are box materials that are commonly used for packing electronic and all sorts of consumer goods and typically after buying, the consumer disposes of the material for recycling. With the move towards ever increasing online shopping, the volumes of OCC are growing exponentially across Europe and elsewhere. It is a huge resource too.

Within the MDF sector the challenge has been for many years the question of ‘what else can we do with the fibre?’ and ‘how can we add value?’ With fundamental technology developments and long-term research into adhesives and additives, boards of various densities evolved and with varying technical properties such as, for example, moisture resistant, flame retardant, exterior and formaldehyde free. And, of course, with these developments came multiple market opportunities internationally and a widely extended range of applications and end uses.

UPC RESEARCH

Enter now UPC Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya in Barcelona. The UPC is a public university that carries out research and provides higher education in the fields of architecture, engineering, sciences, and technology. The university claims to be for people who want to imagine the future and move the world (https://www.upc.edu/en).

After more than 10 years research there since 2011, HONEXT – a spin out company emerged from the University – brings with it a revolutionary waste reclaiming process that turns cellulose residue from the pulp and paper industry into a fully recyclable, construction ready material.

By analysing, sorting and classifying waste, based on its composition, it has proved possible to achieve a standard product. Depending on its quality, HONEXT uses 50-75% paper sludge and 25-50% of cardboard waste as the raw material base.

“We needed to close the loop on the cellulose life cycle and start seeing this type of waste for what it really is: an untapped resource,” said HONEXT chairman and cofounder Pere Merino.

This fascinating research and development project has identified and brought fresh technologies and thinking to the forefront. Selected and specific enzymes have been developed and these are then put into the raw material mix to trigger chemical reactions and to improve fibre binding capability, without the use of any adhesives.

An enzyme is any protein that acts as a catalyst, increasing the rate at which a chemical reaction occurs. The human body probably contains about 10,000 different enzymes. At body temperature, very few biochemical reactions proceed at a significant rate without the presence of an enzyme. Whilst enzymes do not control the direction of the reaction, they increase the rates of forward and reverse actions proportionately.

Enzymes work by binding molecules so that they are held in a particular geometric configuration that allows the reaction to occur. Each enzyme catalyses a specific type of chemical reaction between a few closely related compounds, which are then called substrates of the enzyme.

As a result of many lab trials and experiments over these years and by developing these techniques, HONEXT has now used the technology breakthrough to mix percentages of waste paper sludge and OCC together and in a closed loop system, to heat and then press out all remaining water into a micro-fibrolised cellulose-based panel.

PATH TO COMMERCIALITY

Taking a research project such as this into a commercial proposition is always a challenge and this is the journey that HONEXT are now on. A proof-of-concept pilot plant has been invested in and constructed near Barcelona that is able to produce commercial 2440x1220mm panels in a variety of thicknesses and densities, with a typical panel being +/- 550kg/m3.

The plant was designed to have zero environmental impact: gas and electricity coming from waste digestion. Water is permanently reused, in a closed loop system.

Bringing a feasible solution to the pulp and paper industry’s waste problem and turning this material into a commercially viable product clearly has tremendous potential. It is a breakthrough, and the reality is that we can see here a process of upgrading and up-cycling of paper waste, to recycle and reuse. An example of exactly what society demands in the 21st century.

With new technology, low capital expenditure per cubic metre and with relatively simple engineering, this concept has the potential to be widely accepted across the pulp and paper industry and to be commercialised internationally.

The bio-tech process and the up-cycling of the fibres is non reversible and clearly has the potential to be a core material for many other innovations. Moving away from linear production is the direction of travel, as we all become more accepting of and wish to see, the circular economy model expanded: waste collection – material generation – healthy environments – end of cycle and recycle.

Being resin free, and with no CO2 emissions from the process, the panels produced as a result have the scope to be widely acclaimed by that part of the market looking for environmentally friendly products and the necessary assessments for ‘cradle to cradle’ certification and other regulatory approvals internationally are now being pursued actively. Non-toxic, long lasting and sustainable is an often-quoted requirement from customers.

As Environmental Social Governance(ESG) standards become ever more prevalent across the globe, the appeal of this type of material is clear to see. The ESG criteria bring a set of standards for a company’s operations that socially conscious investors can use to screen potential investments. The environmental criteria considers how a company performs as a steward of nature. ESG refers to the three central factors in measuring the sustainability and societal impact of an investment in a company or business. These criteria help to better determine the future financial performance of companies (return and risk).

So, in short and as a result, the leading-edge technology and the new product that is emerging is already being noticed by early adopters. Renowned international companies and retailers are already using HONEXT as a dry lining material for specific offices and stores. Undoubtedly more will follow.

The process as described and the commercialisation of the concept through proprietary and process partnerships, implemented through multiple plants in strategically spread locations, can potentially make a large and valuable contribution to solving the waste and landfill issue for the pulp and paper industry. The vision is a collaboration with paper mills and waste management facilities to create a globally distributed production network that transforms waste where it is generated.

Apart from the production and proof of concept dynamics and evolution, the marketing and sales team at HONEXT is now developing relationships in various countries, with key wood-based panel distribution partners so that the construction sector and various target markets can see the product for themselves.

Then, with selective and appropriate test marketing, linked to product performance, all performance aspects can be seriously reviewed and reflected on. Early experiences so far are extremely positive.

SUSTAINABLE SHORTLIST

Also to note and following an article by Dezeen, which has added influential credibility, the company has recently been able to announce that HONEXT has made it to this year’s Dezeen Awards Sustainable Design Shortlist.

They can share this first selection with other world-leading brands such as Tarkett and Really by Kvadrat, as well as with materials research pioneers including Other Matter, Studio Plastique and architecture firm Snøhetta. The entry is now with the panel of leading industry figures, who will decide which projects and products will be the winner for each category in November.

Dezeen claims to be the world’s most popular and influential architecture, interiors and design magazine, with over three million monthly readers and six million social media followers. Dezeen was launched by Marcus Fairs in November 2006. In 2021, Dezeen was acquired by Danish media group JP/Politiken Media Group.

The resulting HONEXT Panels have potentially a range of construction industry-related application possibilities. If the MDF story and its incredible dynamic evolution is a comparative and a point of reference, of what can happen over time in the panels sector internationally, then the future could look extremely exciting for this ‘new kid on the block’.

Watch this space!

Premium sludge from the paper industry as a new panelboard feedstock material PHOTO: FIRMA
HONEXT panels production pilot plant in Vacarisses, Spain. PHOTO: MARTA RIERA
HONEXT panels ready to be installed as wall cladding and acoustic panelling. PHOTO: ENRIC BADRINAS
Outside of the pilot plant. PHOTO: MARTA RIERA