No pulp fiction

Published: Thursday 15 May 2003

Worldwide, the expensive, energy-intensive process of turning wood into paper costs the pulp and paper industry more than US $6 billion a year. Much of this expense involves separating wood's cellulose from lignin -- the glue that binds a tree's fibres -- by using an alkali solution. Although the lignin so removed is reused as fuel, wood with less lignin and more cellulose would save the industry millions of dollars a year in processing and chemical costs.

Research at US-based North Carolina State University is progressing towards achieving this goal. By genetically modifying aspen trees, Vincent L Chiang, professor of forest biotechnology, and his colleagues have reduced the lignin content in trees by 45-50 per cent. According to Chiang, along with having low lignin levels, the trees are also rich in cellulose. Moreover, they grow at a much faster rate. Harvesting such trees would not only be good for the industry, but would also reduce pressure on the existing forests.

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