Pulp (paper) explained

Pulp is a dry fibrous material prepared by chemically or mechanically separating fibers from wood or fiber crops.

Pulp can be either fluffy or formed into thick sheets. The latter form is used if the pulp must be transported from the pulp mill to a paper mill. Pulp which is shipped and sold as pulp (not processed into paper in the same facility) is referred to as market pulp. When suspended in water the fibers disperse and become more pliable. This pulp suspension can be laid down on a screen to form a sheet of paper, and this is the primary use for wood pulp. Wood pulp is the most common material used to make paper. The timber resources used to make wood pulp are referred to as pulpwood. Wood pulp comes from softwood trees such as spruce, pine, fir, larch and hemlock, and hardwoods such as eucalyptus, aspen and birch.


Using wood to make paper is a fairly recent innovation. In the 1800s, fiber crops such as linen fibres were the primary material source, and paper was a relatively expensive commodity. The use of wood to make pulp for paper began with the development of mechanical pulping in Germany by F.G. Keller in the 1840s. Chemical processes quickly followed, first with J. Roth's use of sulfurous acid to treat wood, followed by B. Tilghman's US patent on the use of calcium bisulfite, Ca(HSO3)2, to pulp wood in 1867. Almost a decade later the first commercial sulfite pulp mill was built in Sweden. It used magnesium as the counter ion and was based on work by Carl Daniel Ekman. By 1900 sulfite pulping had become the dominant means of producing wood pulp, surpassing mechanical pulping methods. The competing chemical pulping process, the sulfate or kraft process was developed by Carl F. Dahl in 1879 and the first kraft mill started (in Sweden) in 1890.[1] The invention of the recovery boiler by G.H. Tomlinson in the early 1930s [2] allowed kraft mills to recycle almost all of their pulping chemicals. This, along with the ability of the kraft process to accept a wider variety of types of wood and produce stronger fibers [3] made the kraft process the dominant pulping process starting in the 1940s.[1]

Global production of wood pulp in 2006 was 160 million tonnes (175 million tons)[4] . In the previous year, 57 million tonnes (63 million tons) of market pulp (not made into paper in the same facility) was sold, with Canada being the largest source at 21% of the total, followed by the US at 16%. Chemical pulp made up 93% of market pulp.[5]

Manufacture of wood pulp

See main article: Pulp mill.

Harvesting trees

Most pulp mills use good forest management practices in harvesting trees to ensure that they have a sustainable source of raw materials. One of the major complaints about harvesting wood for pulp mills is that it reduces the biodiversity of the harvested forest. Trees raised specifically for pulp production account for 16 percent of world pulp production, old growth forests account for 9 percent, and second- and third- and more generation forests account for the rest.[6] Reforestation is practiced in most areas, so trees are a renewable resource. The FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certifies paper made from trees harvested according to guidelines meant to ensure good forestry practices.[7]

The number of trees consumed depends whether mechanical processes or chemical processes are used. It has been estimated that based on a mixture of softwoods and hardwoods 12 meters (40 ft) tall and 15-20 centimeters (6-8 in) in diameter, it would take an average of 24 trees to produce 0.9 tonne (1 ton) of printing and writing paper, using the kraft process (chemical pulping). Mechanical pulping is about twice as efficient in using trees since almost all of the wood is used to make fiber therefore it takes about 12 trees to make 0.9 tonne (1 ton) of mechanical pulp or newsprint.[8]

There are roughly 2 short tons in a cord of wood.[9]

Preparation for pulping

See main article: article and Woodchipping. Only the heartwood and sapwood are useful for making pulp. Bark contains relatively few useful fibers and is removed and used as fuel to provide steam for use in the pulp mill. Most pulping processes require that the wood be chipped and screened to provide uniform sized chips.


There are a number of different processes which can be used to separate the wood fibers:

Mechanical pulp

Manufactured grindstones with embedded silicon carbide or aluminum oxide can be used to grind small wood logs called "bolts" to make "stone groundwood" pulp (SGW). If the wood is steamed prior to grinding it is known as "pressure groundwood" pulp (PGW). Most modern mills use chips rather than logs and ridged metal discs called refiner plates instead of grindstones. If the chips are just ground up with the plates, the pulp is called "refiner mechanical" pulp (RMP) and if the chips are steamed while being refined the pulp is called "thermomechanical" pulp (TMP). Steam treatment significantly reduces the total energy needed to make the pulp and decreases the damage (cutting) to fibers. Mechanical pulps are used for products that require less strength, such as newsprint and paperboards.

Chemithermomechanical pulp

Wood chips can be pretreated with sodium carbonate, sodium hydroxide, sodium sulfite and other chemical prior to refining with equipment similar to a mechanical mill. The conditions of the chemical treatment are much less vigorous (lower temperature, shorter time, less extreme pH) than in a chemical pulping process since the goal is to make the fibers easier to refine, not to remove lignin as in a fully chemical process. Pulps made using these hybrid processes are known as chemithermomechanical pulps (CTMP).

Chemical pulp

See main article: Kraft process, Sulfite process and Soda pulping. Chemical pulp is produced by combining wood chips and chemicals in large vessels known as digesters where heat and the chemicals break down the lignin, which binds the cellulose fibers together, without seriously degrading the cellulose fibers. Chemical pulp is used for materials that need to be stronger or combined with mechanical pulps to give a product different characteristics. The kraft process is the dominant chemical pulping method, with sulfite process being second. Historicaly soda pulping was the first succesful chemical pulping method.

Recycled pulp

See main article: Paper recycling. Recycled pulp is also called deinked pulp (DIP). DIP is recycled paper which has been processed by chemicals, thus removing printing inks and other unwanted elements and freed the paper fibers. The process is called deinking.

DIP is used as raw material in papermaking. Many newsprint, toilet paper and facial tissue grades commonly contain 100% deinked pulp and in many other grades, such as lightweight coated for offset and printing and writing papers for office and home use, DIP makes up a substantial proportion of the furnish.


See main article: Bleaching of wood pulp. The pulp produced up to this point in the process can be bleached to produce a white paper product. The chemicals used to bleach pulp have been a source of environmental concern, and recently the pulp industry has been using alternatives to chlorine, such as chlorine dioxide, oxygen, ozone and hydrogen peroxide.

Alternatives to wood pulp

Today, some people and groups advocate using field crop fiber or agricultural residues instead of wood fiber as being more sustainable. However, wood is also a renewable resource, with about 90% of pulp coming from plantations or reforested areas.[6] Non-wood fiber sources account for about 5-10% of global pulp production, for a variety of reasons, including seasonal availability, problems with chemical recovery, brightness of the pulp etc. [10] [5]

Nonwovens are in some applications alternatives to paper made from wood pulp, like filter paper or tea bags.

Research is under way to develop biological pulping, similar to chemical pulping but using certain species of fungi that are able to break down the unwanted lignin, but not the cellulose fibres. This could have major environmental benefits in reducing the pollution associated with chemical pulping.

Environmental concerns

The major environmental impacts of producing wood pulp come from its impact on forest sources and from its waste products.

Forest resources

See main article: Forest management. The impact of logging to provide the raw material for wood pulp is an area of intense debate. Modern logging practices, using forest management seeks to provide a reliable, renewable source of raw materials for pulp mills. The practice of clear cutting is a particularly sensitive issue since it is a very visible effect of logging. Reforestation, the planting of tree seedlings on logged areas, has also been criticized for decreasing biodiversity because reforested areas are monocultures. Proponents of reforestation and plantations argue that in this respect trees are no different from any other agricultural crop. Logging of old growth forests accounts for less than 10% of wood pulp[6], but is one of the most controversial issues.

Effluents from pulp mills

See main article: Kraft process, Sulfite process and Bleaching of wood pulp.

The process effluents are treated in a biological effluent treatment plant, which guarantees that the effluents are not toxic in the recipient.

Mechanical pulp is not a major cause for environmental concern since most of the organic material is retained in the pulp, and the chemicals used (hydrogen peroxide and sodium dithionite) produce benign byproducts (water and sodium sulfate (finally), respectively).

Chemical pulp mills, especially kraft mills, are energy self-sufficient and very nearly closed cycle with respect to inorganic chemicals.

Bleaching with chlorine produces large amounts of organochlorine compounds, including dioxins[11] .Chemical pulp mills, especially kraft mills, are energy self-sufficient and very nearly closed cycle with respect to inorganic chemicals.

Paper production

See main article: Fourdrinier machine. The Fourdrinier Machine is the basis for most modern papermaking, and it has been used in some variation since its conception. It accomplishes all the steps needed to transform a source of wood pulp into a final paper product.

Paper stability

Much of the early paper made from wood pulp contained significant amounts of alum, a variety of aluminium sulfate salts that are significantly acidic. Alum was added to paper to assist in sizing the paper,[1] making it somewhat water resistant so that inks did not "run" or spread uncontrollably. The early papermakers did not realize that the alum they added liberally to cure almost every problem encountered in making their product would eventually be detrimental.[12] The cellulose fibers which make up paper are hydrolyzed by acid, and the presence of alum would eventually degrade the fibers until the paper disintegrated in a process which has come to be known as "slow fire". Documents written on rag paper were significantly more stable. The use of non-acidic additives to make paper is becoming more prevalent and the stability of these papers is less of an issue.

Paper made from mechanical pulp contains significant amounts of lignin, a major component in wood. In the presence of light and oxygen lignin reacts to give yellow materials, which is why newsprint and other mechanical paper yellows with age. Paper made from bleached kraft or sulfite pulps does not contain significant amounts of lignin and is therefore better suited for books, documents and other applications where whiteness of the paper is essential.

It is important to note that just because a paper is made of wood pulp, does not necessarily mean it is any less durable than a rag paper. The factor that determines the ageing behavior of a paper is how it was manufactured, not the original source of the fibers. [13] Furthermore, tests sponsored by the Library of Congress prove that all paper is at risk of acid decay, because cellulose itself produces formic, acetic, lactic and oxalic acids.[14]

Mechanical pulping yields almost a tonne of pulp per tonne of dry wood used (which is why mechanical pulps are sometimes referred to as "high yield" pulps), which is about twice as much as chemical pulping. Consequently, paper made with mechanical pulps is often cheaper than that made with bleached chemical pulps. Mass-market paperback books and newspapers use these mechanical papers. Book publishers tend to use acid-free paper, made from fully bleached chemical pulps for hardback and trade paperback books.


In 2009, pulp sold for $26 a short ton in the United States. The market had experienced a drop in price due to falling demand when newspapers reduced their size, in part, as a result of the recession.[15]

See also

Notes and References

  1. Book: Biermann, Christopher J.. Essentials of Pulping and Papermaking. 1993. Academic Press, Inc.. San Diego. 0-12-097360-X.
  2. Book: E. Sjöström. Wood Chemistry: Fundamentals and Applications. Academic Press. 1993.
  3. Web site: History of Paper. 2007-10-08.
  4. Web site: Pulp production growing in new areas (Global production). 2007-10-13. September 5, 2006. Metso Corporation.
  5. Web site: Overview of the Wood Pulp Industry. 2007-10-13. 2007. Market Pulp Association.
  6. Web site: Paper Chase. 2007-09-21. Martin. Sam. 2004. Ecology Communications, Inc..
  7. Web site: Certification Tracking products from the forest to the shelf. 2007-09-21.
  8. http://www.conservatree.com/learn/EnviroIssues/TreeStats.shtml
  9. http://www.doa.state.wi.us/docs_view2.asp?docid=778
  10. Judt. Manfred. 2001. Oct-Dec. Nonwoody Plant Fibre Pulps. Inpaper International. 2007-10-07.
  11. Web site: Effluents from Pulp Mills using Bleaching - PSL1. 2007-09-21. 1991. ISBN 0-662-18734-2 DSS. Health Canada.
  12. Book: Clark, James d'A.. Pulp Technology and Treatment for Paper, 2nd ed.. 1985. Miller Freeman Publications. San Francisco. 0-87930-164-3.
  13. Erhardt, D. & C. Tumosa (2005). Chemical Degradation of Cellulose in Paper over 500 years. Restaurator: International Journal for the Preservation of Library and Archival Material. 26: 155.
  14. Library of Congress. (2006). The Deterioration and Preservation of Paper: Some Essential Facts, Retrieved November 4, 2007, from http://www.loc.gov/preserv/deterioratebrochure.html.
  15. Book: Lefebrvre, Paul. Wood products market looks soft. the Chronicle. February 4, 2009.