Imprimir Republish

Corporate research

Unbeatable forests

Suzano invests in energy and products to replace oil derivatives

Léo RamosFábio Carucci Figliolino (right) and his team from the industrial research areaLéo Ramos

Suzano, a pioneer in the manufacturing of paper and pulp from eucalyptus, is investing in various research fronts simultaneously in its search for innovations. “In a partnership with a European university, we’ve developed a lignin-based polymer for different applications in the market,” says chemical engineer, Fábio Carucci Figliolino, 52, executive manager of Suzano’s industrial research area, who does not reveal all the details of the new discovery. Lignin is an organic polymer responsible for the rigidity of the cell wall of plants. With the University of Nova Lisboa, in Portugal, and the University of São Paulo (USP), in São Carlos, the company made a paper transistor for use in packaging. The State University of Campinas (Unicamp) is a partner in several projects, including the development of a new natural polymer-based film for packaging, which produces a  fat barrier.

In collaboration with the Federal University of Viçosa (UFV) in Minas Gerais and international institutions, Suzano is heading up the Lignodeco (an abbreviation of Lignocellulose Deconstruction) Project, designed to develop technologies for the pre-treatment of biomass from eucalyptus wood and its potential applications, such as biofuel and chemical products of an organic origin. The project was chosen from 263 works presented by researchers from all over the world in the 7th Framework Program, the main funding tool of the European Union for supporting research and development activities. With funding of € 5 million, the project has been developed since 2010 in a collaboration between the Pulp and Paper Laboratory of the UFV, Suzano, the Center for Biological Investigations (CIB) of Madrid, the Institute of Natural Resources and Agrobiology of Seville (Irnas), the Technical Research Center of Finland (VTT), the Danish company Novozymes (the world’s biggest producer of enzymes), and the Paper Technical Center (CTP), in France. “There are more than 20 researchers involved in the project, all with a Master’s degree or a PhD,” says forestry engineer Augusto Fernandes Milanez, 62, a project consultant working in the industrial research area at Suzano and the coordinator of Lignodeco.

The research, development and innovation area of the company, the world’s second biggest producer of eucalyptus pulp, whose headquarters are in São Paulo, is split into two: industrial research and forestry research. There are 99 internal researchers with differing educational backgrounds, including biologists, forestry engineers, agronomists, chemists and materials engineers, of whom 50 are university graduates, 8 have Master’s degrees and 5 have PhDs, as well as chemical technicians. In 2011, the company produced 1.8 million tons of pulp and 1.3 million tons of paper. The net revenue was R$ 4.8 billion, 7.4% above the 2010 revenue figure. “The R&D budget for industrial and forestry research is R$30 million a year, without counting investments,” says Carucci.

Léo RamosEquipment for testing paper at SuzanoLéo Ramos

Among these investments, for example, was the purchase of the Israeli biotech company Futura Gene, in 2011. “The genetic transformation of eucalyptus means that we shall need less land and water to produce pulp and have lower costs.” The company has research laboratories in Israel, Brazil and China and is also active in the United States. In addition to being a major pulp consumer market, China is included in Suzano’s policy of producing specific trees for customers in various parts of the world. In Brazil, the technology company has its headquarters in Itapetininga, in up-state São Paulo, where Suzano’s forest research and genetic improvement center used to be. “Futura Gene carries out genetic modifications for our eucalyptus varieties,” says Milanez. Genetically modified plants are being assessed in controlled experiments.

The investment in biotechnology is part of the company’s growth plan, which has been drawn up with a 10 to 15 year timeline, and is supported by innovative projects and actions on new fronts, which include biorefineries and renewable energy, in addition to paper and pulp. A pilot biorefinery project for extracting lignin from black liquor, which results from the wood cooking process, is in operation in Limeira, up-state São Paulo, with capacity to produce a ton a day. Present in around 25% of eucalyptus wood, lignin can be used both for generating energy for pulp and paper manufacturing processes, and in the production of chemical products that replace oil products.

“We’re looking to use it in various products to substitute everything from composites for asphalt to petrochemicals in general,” says Milanez. “In the tests carried out on eucalyptus lignin, we’ve identified 18,000 chemical substances that are also found in oil.” Oil has around 32,000 chemical compounds. The technological challenges for the operation of the biorefinery on an industrial scale are still in the adjustment phase, but the research carried out shows potential for using the products extracted from lignin, particularly in civil construction, as a component of concrete and cement. “Just as an oil refinery separates out the products and keeps adding value to each of them, a biorefinery transforms biomass into products with greater added value,” says Milanez, who for the last 35 years, since he finished his Master’s degree in forestry sciences at UFV, has been working in the paper and pulp area. He started his career in other companies of the sector and has been with Suzano since 1994. The idea of the lignin extraction project was born in 2007, during a visit that the consultant made to a biorefinery in Sweden, when he was taking part in a congress on the topic.

Léo RamosBlack liquor used to extract ligninLéo Ramos

“The pilot plant has our technology, but Brazilian suppliers helped us in this process,” says Vinicius Lobosco, 39, a chemical engineer with a degree from USP’s Polytechnic School, and responsible for the lignin extraction project. After finishing his degree, Lobosco did a Master’s and a PhD at the Royal Technology Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. “I was hired by Inventia, a renowned paper and pulp research institute, and did a PhD at the university,” he says. After 12 years he decided to return to Brazil. He worked in another company in the sector for a year and half, but was delighted with the possibilities offered by Suzano in research, innovation and, mainly, entrepreneurship.

Researcher Sérgio Saraiva, 33, who has been with the company for two years, is working on new applications for lignin and is responsible for the interface of the biorefinery project with the Brazilian and international universities and research institutes. Saraiva has a degree in Chemistry from USP and did his Master’s degree in organic chemistry at Unicamp, where he also currently doing a PhD, the theme of which is one of Suzano’s biorefinery projects. The investment for installing the pilot plant was R$ 1 million, obtained from the Studies and Projects Funding Agency (Finep). The forecast is that the biorefinery will have been set up by 2013 or 2014, but the choice of the location is still being studied.

The research carried out during the scientific initiation of Mariana Domingues Mendonça, 25, helped her to join Suzano, where she has been working as a researcher for two and a half years. “I was studying the development of natural polymer-based cardboard packaging,” says Mariana, who did chemical engineering at Unicamp. In the laboratory, she analyzed water-barrier properties and physical property gains for paper. In an innovation course at the university, Mariana’s supervisor, Telma Teixeira Franco, met Fábio Carucci, who was interested in the project, but the focus of the research changed to paper with a fat barrier. After a six-month internship at Suzano in the paper and cardboard area, she was hired.

Léo RamosChemist Sérgio Saraiva carries out research in the company’s R&D laboratoryLéo Ramos

On the other action front, Suzano Renewable Energy was formed in 2010 to produce wood pellets – dehydrated and pressed particles with high calorific power – that can be used as fuel for residential and industrial boilers and in thermoelectric power stations. To produce energy, eucalyptus clones were selected that enable a greater number of trees to be planted per hectare and that have a reduced harvesting cycle of two to three years. The planted eucalyptus cycle for paper and pulp is around seven years. Production on an industrial scale, which will target the external market, is planned to start in 2014, with a production capacity of 3 million tons of pellets a year.

Suzano has been investing heavily in open innovation and has worked with various companies, universities and research institutes. Among the most constant partners are Unicamp, USP at São Carlos, the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar), UFV, the University of Hamburg in Germany, the Paper Technical Center in France, the Natural Resources and Agrobiology Institute of Seville in Spain, the Technical Research Center of Finland and the University of North Carolina in the USA. “Today, we have contracts with 51 overseas partners,” reports forestry engineer Elenice Pereira Maia, who is responsible for prospecting new projects in the industrial research area.

In March of 2008, Suzano put into practice its new research and business strategy. “We reviewed our processes and began an important change, which is to see ourselves more as a forest-based company,” says Carucci, who has a degree in chemical engineering from Mogi das Cruzes University (UMC) , an MBA in business administration from the Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV), a specialization course in graphic printing from USP, and one in strategic technological innovation management from Unicamp. “Suzano always invested in R&D, but we saw that we could be even better if we had a clear innovation process within the company.”

A consultancy company was hired to help in the change process, which took 15 months to formulate and implement. “The strategy was so strong and the speed of implementation so fast that 90% of the projects that were on-going were suspended,” says Carucci, who has been with the company for 28 years. “We started again from practically zero.” Among the various lines of research that became part of the portfolio of projects are biotechnology, improvements in eucalyptus clones, cost reduction, an increase in productivity, new applications for pulp, new chemical products from wood to substitute oil, nanotechnology, and biorefining.

Léo RamosOne of Suzano’s research laboratoriesLéo Ramos

The process began with a question posed by Suzano’s directors: “Where does the company want to go over the next 10 to 15 years?” Externally, there were 51 interviews, asking the question: “Where do you see the pulp and paper segment going in the future and what would be your technological bets for this sector over the next 10 years?” The interviewees included members of the company’s value chain (suppliers, producers, distributors), research centers around the world, other companies, and regulatory and government sectors. “Internally, we wanted to know the direction to be taken and externally how to get there,” says Carucci. “It was a very rich process, because in the end we had clear goals for paper, pulp and forests and with this we built a fast growth strategy for the next 10 to 15 years.”

Around 30% of the projects in the current portfolio are the so-called radical projects – renewable energy, chemicals from wood, biorefining. They are the company’s bet for a substantial leap in growth in the future. The rest comprises incremental projects, which deal with small changes in products and production processes and will be responsible for continuous growth in the first phase.

Each of the two research areas – industrial and forestry – has an executive manager, a consultant for assessing projects and an R&D assistant, who is responsible for the budget and for seeking out new projects. The teams are divided into research areas with a market-based view, and not by technology, as usually happens in the business world. “We have a dedicated team for pulp and new business, another for paper and cardboard for packaging, a third that develops new inputs and a team that looks after project prospecting and innovation,” says Carucci. There is no division between technicians and researchers, because the work is done jointly. They organize themselves on their own in accordance with the projects, since there is no laboratory head.

050-054_Suzano_196The innovation process comes from the technical prospecting, which identifies and selects the partnerships. “Opportunities are mapped out using specific tools,” says Elenice Maia, who has a Master’s degree and a PhD in pulp from UFV. One of them, for example, is the purchase of prospection services that provide access to a worldwide network of researchers at universities and research institutes. The first time Suzano used the service it received 62 proposals from researchers in 6 weeks, in response to a technological challenge. Of these, five were chosen, which resulted in new projects for the company.

“Brazil’s competitiveness in pulp is based on our competence in creating very productive eucalyptus forests,” says Carucci. Brazilian eucalyptus plantations produce an amount of biomass that is greater than that of the rest of the world for a series of reasons that involve everything from the climate, the availability of land, and the forestry competence of companies in the sector, based on their skill in choosing the plants that are the most appropriate for each region planted. On average, the country produces 41 cubic meters of pulp per hectare. “Today we have eucalyptus planted that produces 50 cubic meters per hectare and clones with figures of 100 cubic meters,” says Milanez.