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ECF Riding High: ECF Appears to Have Won its Battle Against TCF and is Poised to Become the Dominant Bleaching Technology in North America.
by Patrick Fitzgerald
Chemical Marketing Reporter *
November 6, 1995


Pulp and paper bleachers are going through a period of transition. With the paper industry's depression of several years ago just a memory, mills throughout North America are running at capacity, drivingthe demand for bleaching chemicals. The 10-year trend toward eliminating elemental chlorine has driven paper manufacturers' acceptance of ECF (elemental chlorine-free) bleaching technology, pushing up the demand and prices for sodium chlorate and hydrogen peroxide.

"All indications at this point suggest ECF will be the dominant bleaching strategy in North America," says Mike Berger, Degussa's industry manager for pulp and paper, peroxygen chemicals division. ECF's emerging dominance in North America is particularly notable, because only a few years ago ECF was locked in a struggle with proponents of totally chlorine-free (TCF) bleaching for control of the North American market. At the time, ECF was viewed as, at best, a transitional technology until North America went toTCF. Today, industry players expect ECF to be the primary bleaching technology in North America, at least until manufacturers are able to develop a totally effluent-free (TEF) or "closed loop" mill.

ECF pulp is derived from chlorine dioxide bleaching (produced via sodium chlorate) and hydrogen peroxide, while TCF bleaching uses a combination of oxygen, hydrogen peroxide and ozone. Several factors have contributed to ECF's growth.

The pulp and paper industry is betting that Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) proposed cluster rules-with guidelines expected to be set in 1996-will embrace ECF as the preferred bleaching technology in North America.

"Whatever form the cluster rules eventually come out in, they will be based on ECF as the best available technology," says Douglas Pryke, executive director of Alliance for Environmental Technology (AET), a Washington, D.C.-based association of chemical manufacturers and forest product companies. The increased substitution of chlorine dioxide for chlorine has reduced the emissions of dioxin to "non-detect" levels at 90 percent of US pulp mills, according to AET. ECF-produced paper's greater strength and lower cost are further advantages over TCF.

ECF is the fastest growing segment in the world bleached chemical pulp market, according to Mr. Pryke. Since 1990, ECF-produced pulp has increased by 1,600 percent and now accounts for over 30 percent of US bleached chemical pulp production. In the US, ECF pulp production will reach 8.6 million tons this year, a 43-percent increase over 1994, according to AET. Worldwide ECF production is expected to reach 28.5 million tons per year in 1995-more than 40 percent of the bleached pulp market.

In North America, 104 US mills and 44 Canadian mills bleach approximately 43 million short tons of kraft pulp annually. This figure accounts for 44 percent of the total North American pulping capacity, according to SRI International, a Menlo Park, Calif.based consultancy.

Canadian production of ECF-produced pulp is also strong and is expected to reach 6.6 million tons in 1995, a 17-percent increase over last year's production. Approximately 60 percent of all bleached chemical pulp in Canada is produced by ECF, according to AET. "The mills in Canada will follow what their customers require," says Angelo Proestos, managing director, CHEMinfo Services, a Toronto-based consultancy. He says the weighted-average, first-stage substitution rate of chlorine dioxide for chlorine in Canadian mills was 66 percent in 1993. Today that figure is between 80 to 85 percent and is expected to reach almost 100 percent by 2000. "There isn't as strong a drive to eliminate chlorine dioxide as eliminating elemental chlorine. I don't know that mills are feeling a lot of pressure to go to TCF," Mr. Proestos says. "One or two mills does not make a trend."

"I think the ECF/TCF debate is becoming a little less shrill," says Billy Tullos, Elf Atochem North America's business managerfor chloralkali and oxygenated products. "Under the originally proposed EPA cluster rules, ECF wouldn't have met the regulations. But I think the EPA has listened to industry's objections, and reason is beginning to rule the day." Had the original rules gone into effect-even with complete substitution of chlorine dioxide for chlorine-over 30 US mills might have been forced to close, according to SRI. "We really think that when the EPA regulations go into effect-which we see happening in six to 12 months-that ECF will be the only alternative," says Mr. Tullos.

"Approximately 60 to 65 percent of the industry has made-or are in the process of making-the change to ECF," says Ron Scheff, business manager for peroxygens at DuPont. Sodium chlorate producers, anticipating the industry's switch to ECF, are gearing up for increased demand. "Chlorate is approaching capacity, and that's why there is talk of expansion," says Barry Friedfeld, analyst at Kline & Co., a Fairfield, N.J.-based business consultancy. ERCO's 110,000-short-ton greenfield sodium chlorate facility in Augusta, Ga., is expected to come on stream in 1996. Huron Tech announced the relocation of its Ridgewood, N.C., chlorate plant to Augusta, Ga., and a corresponding increase in capacity from 9,000 tons per year to 43,000 tons. Huron is also increasing capacity at its existing Augusta, Ga., facility by 45,000 tons per year, and both facilities should be on line by the end of the year.

Kerr-McGee is expanding chlorate production at its Hamilton, Miss., plant by 15,000 short tons, bringing total capacity at the facility to 138,000 tons. The new capacity, driven by growth in demand for substitution of elemental chlorine, is expected to come on stream in late 1996, according to the company. Nexen Chemicals, the partnership between Canadian Occidental Petroleum and OxyChem, announced an increase of production capacity at its Brandon, Ontario, and Bruderheim, Alberta, sodium chlorate facilities by an aggregate 33,000 tons, bringing their total Canadian capacity to approximately 226,000 short tons. Nexen Chemicals's Taft, La., facility also recently completed a 66,000-short-ton expansion, bringing capacity up to 127,000 tons.

Several major pulp and paper manufacturers-including International Paper, Georgia-Pacific, Champion and 'Weyerhaeuser-have announced that all their mills will be ECF by either 1996 or 1997, regardless of the final form of the cluster rules. "That allowed us to go ahead with our capacity expansion," says Don Denby, ERCO Worldwide's vice-president of marketing. "Our forecasts show that the market for sodium chlorate is going to continue to be tight until our plant comes on stream in 1996, and the other producers' debottlenecking expansions are completed." Mr. Denby notes the tight supply is putting upward pressure on prices.

"We're running flat-out at capacity," says Dave Anderson, maintenance and production manager, at Pope and Talbot's 500-ton-a-day bleaching facility in Halsey, Ore. Pope and Talbot's ECF facility uses hypochlorous acid, in combination with water, to bleach pulp. "With the market we're in now, I don't believe that TCF will have a major impact," says Mr. Anderson.

Other producers are questioning the wisdom of expanding chlorate capacity. Elf Atochem's Mr. Tullos agrees the new EPA regulations "will accelerate the trend to sodiurn chlorate and hydrogen peroxide," but says the company has no plans to increase sodium chlorate capacity at their 180,000-ton plant in Portland, Ore. Mr. Tullos says many mills took downtime and reduced operating rates during the the industry's depression in 1993. This deuvelopment, combined with a reduction of the Northwest's supply of trees due to the spotted owl controversy, created an excess supply of sodium chlorate. The expected EPA guidelines, along with the rebound of pulp prices, has pushed demand back up. "When the market turned, it allowed even the most inefficient mills to run flat out," says Mr. Tullos, creating today's tight market for chlorate. "But in the long term, the technology will probably go past ECF to TEF manufacturing or 'closing the loop' in mills [where all waste is recycled back into the process)."

Hydrogen peroxide-already in tight supply-will also see growth due to mills con-Ivertihg to ECF production. "The cluster rules will have a positive impact on hydrogen peroxide growth rates," says Degussa's Mr. Berger, who adds a "conservative estimate" of between 9- and 15-percent annual growth for peroxide, depending on the final outcome of the rules, is expected.

Hydrogen peroxide is used to reinforce oxygen-enhanced extraction in pulp bleaching sequences. "This use permits greater chlorine dioxide substitution of chlorine in the first bleaching stage," says Robert Monsen, vice-president-marketing at Solvay Interox. DuPont's Mr. Scheff says that peroxide should grow annually at a rate of 10 to 15 percent through to 1998, while Mr. Monsen estimates 10-percent growth during the same time period.

Recently improving peroxide prices are spurring capacity expansions. DuPont has added 88 million pounds of hydrogen peroxide capacity to its Gibbons, Alberta, facility, scheduled for startup in 1996. Solvay Interox is constructing a new hydrogen peroxide plant in Deer Park, Tex. The plant is expected to start up in mid-1997 and have a capacity of 190 million pounds. Eka Nobel, a relative newcomer to the US market but one of the biggest peroxide producers worldwide, is raising capacity at its Columbus, Miss., facility ftom 77 million pounds to 112 million pounds.

This August, FMC announced it is expanding production at its Bayport, Tex., facility by 140 million pounds, increasing FMC's North American peroxide capacity to 450 million pounds.

"Demand growth, driven largely by the bleaching of mechanical pulp, and the partial replacement of chlorine in kraft pulp, has averaged more than 15 percent per year during the past five years," says William J. Harvey, FMC's peroxygen chemicals division manager. "Despite increased demand, severely depressed prices have precluded investing in much-needed capacity. The improving pricing trend currently underway should ultimately make capital-efficient additions, such as the Bayport expansion, economically attractive."

PQ Corporation's sodium silicates, which act to stabilize and conserve peroxide during the bleaching process, are also experiencing rapid growth, says Caroline Kwiatkowski, a PQ account executive. Sodium silicate deactivates metals such as iron, copper and manganese, which catalyze the decomposition of hydrogen peroxide. "Where there is peroxide, there should be sodium silicates," says Ms. Kwiatkowski. In addition, silicates also buffer the bleach liquid at a higher pH at which the peroxide is most effective.

PQ also produces epsom salt (magnesium sulfate heptahydrate) which is used to modify the selectivity of oxygen-which can potentially weaken pulp fiber strength-to protect pulp viscosity, maintain cellulose fiber lengths and retard the degradation of pulp carbohydrates during the oxygen delignification stage in kraft bleaching, according to the company.

The markets for oxygen and ozone, however, may look a little less bright today than just a few years ago. About 50 percent of the 600,000 short tons of oxygen produced annually in the US are used in pulp bleaching, according to Tom Kulikuowski, market manager for pulp and paper at Allentown, Pa.-based Air Products, the leading supplier of oxygen to US pulp and paper mills. Oxygen delignification and oxygen-alkali extraction are employed in the bleaching process to remove lignin from pulp. Between 25 and 35 percent of North American pulp mills employ oxygen delignification, but some industry observers say the high cost of conversion is a drawback.

"The leveling off in growth for oxygen is really a North American perspective," says Mr. Kulikowski, who estimates demand for oxygen in pulp bleaching will continue to grow at a rate of 5 to 10 percent annually. "But we do feel oxygen delignification should be justified on operating cost savings, rather than purely on environmental benefits."

Mr. Kulikowski says that mills using more than 10 tons of oxygen "see a favorable cost impact" by converting from a liquid supply to on-site generation of oxygen. He notes that at this level of usage, oxygen's relatively low cost and better selectivity provides a costs savings to mills.


* Used with permission from Chemical Marketing Reporter.