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Suzano boosts R&D to scale up global offerings of bioproducts

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Suzano boosts R&D to scale up global offerings of bioproducts

October 19, 2021 - 12:35

SAO PAULO, Oct. 19, 2021 (PPI Latin America) -The world’s largest market pulp producer, Brazil’s Suzano, is taking “firm and safe” steps to support the bioeconomy and offer renewable products that go beyond raw material for paper products, according to Bibiana Rubini, the company’s executive manager for research, development and innovation.

The executive joined a discussion panel in the World Bioeconomy Forum (WBF) on Tuesday October 19 in Belém city, in the northern region of Brazil, to discuss new alternative materials that come from planted trees and detailed how Suzano is engaged in platforms that promote sustainable development.

Suzano is globally known for its aggressive growth strategy in the pulp commodity market, with current production of 10.9 million tonnes per year of market pulp, most of which is bleached eucalyptus kraft (BEK) pulp. It also plans to add a further 2.3 million tpy of BEK capacity in the first quarter of 2024 with its new greenfield project, the Cerrado project.

But the company is also paying attention to other potential markets for the biomaterials that originate from eucalyptus trees, in line with its environment, social and governance (ESG) strategy. One of the top priorities for the company is its plan to offer 10 million tonnes of renewable-based products by 2030 – developed from biomass – that can be used in place of fossil-based materials such as plastic. This portfolio includes paper-based solutions, bio-oil, lignin and textile fiber – the latter through a joint venture with Finnish start-up Spinnova.

“Our idea to share this panel in the WBF… is to reinforce that we are taking clear and firm steps in bioeconomy, offering products from renewable sources [and] following our company purpose, which is ‘renewing life inspired by trees.’ The company is engaged and active in this path, making important investments in this direction,” Rubini stated.

Suzano announced in March that the joint venture plans to build its first commercial scale factory in Finland under a €22-million ($25.5-million) investment. The beginning of operations is scheduled for the end of 2022, and the companies expect to reach capacity of 1 million tpy within 10 years.

Suzano does not disclose its research and development (R&D) expenses, but the executive stressed that it has partnerships with 70 institutes, including universities, research centers and start-ups. The company also has around 400 workers focused on research, including 103 scientists from 17 different nationalities.

“The sector has an important vocation for the bioeconomy as it works with planted forests, which are all certified. In Suzano we have been taking expressive steps in this direction. One example is also our lignin extraction plant, which can already produce 20,000 tonnes per year,” Rubini stated. “Of course, when compared to pulp, all these new businesses seem small, but you have to consider that pulp represents about 50-60% of the wood, so the share of other products coming from wood will never have the same size.”

According to Rubini, biomaterials coming from trees have a lot of potential, and large forestry companies like Suzano are working hard to take those materials out of labs, but the work to scale up production and make them available depends on adoption from the entire production chain.

“The move towards innovation is not slow given its economic and technical viability, but it also depends on value chains adopting it. For example, lignin can be integrated with elastomers and phenolic resins, so we need these sectors to also be interested, test and adopt it,” she said.

In lignin, Suzano is developing partnerships to access totally new markets for the company, such as cosmetics. In October, Suzano announced a partnership with one of Brazil’s largest beauty companies, Boticário Group, to develop lignin applications for makeup.

Researchers involved in the partnership have identified an antioxidant effect of the ingredient, which can also be used as a sun protection factor (SPF) enhancer in sunscreens and to reduce graying in foundations for darker skin tones. The lignin prevents the foundation from changing color when oxidized. The companies expect new products to reach consumers in 2022.

Rubini noted that besides concerns about reaching commercial scale, the costs and benefits of the sustainability of some bioproducts also should be considered.

“Sectors need to also evaluate if they would accept losing some performance [as a result of] of using a bioproduct, which is renewable, or how much more they would be willing to pay to reduce use of water [or] include recyclability characteristics, for example. All of these considerations are part of the changes towards bioeconomy,” she said.

Suzano also is targeting investments to produce bio-oil, a long-awaited project for its Aracruz unit. The idea to produce bio-oil from eucalyptus was initially disclosed in 2012 by the former Fibria (acquired by Suzano in 2018), but the project has been on hold.

“It is a matter of opportunity in my point of view for that to be materialized. When we talk about renewable fuel, we have to mention fiscal incentives, regulation and details that go beyond technical and economic viability,” Rubini explained.

As for the pulp itself, Suzano believes there is room for further development apart from the commodity. The company was the first to produce fluff from eucalyptus trees, which can be blended with regular fluff from softwood, providing some technical improvements. Suzano also offers a fiber called Eucastrong, which is used in tissue outside of Brazil.

Demand from the paper packaging sector is also on the rise. According to Rubini, Suzano is conducting research into this market and is expanding sales focused on folding boxboard (FBB) and flexible papers.

“We don’t have kraft pulp for containerboard, but we started to offer some unbleached pulp. It is still a small and testing volume, which can be used in premium applications for boxboard and tissue producers that want to offer products that are not 100% white,” Rubini said.