Chalmers helped BIM further in the product development

​The company BIM had a product that they knew worked. They just didn't know how. Itai Panas, professor in theoretical chemistry at Chalmers, gave them the answer.
Paper pulp before and after bleaching

BIM is specialized in chemically based products for the pulp and paper industry. Bleaching is an important part of their business. The composition of the wood that comes into the large pulp and paper companies’ factories vary so much that the bleaching process must be adjusted to gain best result. That’s when BIM, experts in special chemistry in pulp processes, are contacted.​

When BIM developed the product MSH (magnesium silicate hydrate) it proved to have unique process characteristics. MSH is gentler for the sewage system in the factory and when traditional bleaching impairs the paper, MSH is gentler and impairs much less of the fibers in the paper which gives it better durability, the environmental impact decreases and the energy consumption is reduced. 

Peter Wållberg och Helena WasseniusAt BIM they knew that MSH had these characteristics, but they didn’t know their exact function mechanisms. They had a hard time explaining in a theoretical way how the product worked. The costumers wanted to know how it is consumed in the factory and how it could affect so many process parameters in such a good way. Those customers producing packaging for the food industry had to be sure that the product wasn’t dangerous and that it didn’t give any taste or smell or other unwanted effects. Their customer asked why they should buy a product that was more expensive than other products. It also costed much for BIM only to run tests in their customers’ factories, so great trust was needed only to be let in and to show their product. 

 - We had to, in a scientific manner, show that our product is very different and better than other products, says Peter Wållberg, founder and owner of BIM. 
Itai Panas
As entrepreneur Peter had a vision of what differentiated their product, but he needed access to theoretical competence. He contacted the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering (then Chemistry and Biological Engineering) at Chalmers and got in touch with Itai Panas, professor in Theoretical Chemistry, and his earlier PhD student Angelica Lundin. The Chalmers researchers took on the mission to map the process molecularly. Four PhD theses in different fields, one in concrete chemistry, led to an extensive understanding of the reaction. It showed that Peter Wållberg’s vision was partly correct but the theory also showed that MSH was better than he first thought. MSH works, in short terms, as a molecular vacuum cleaner that cleans up the substances that may harm the pulp process. Wood consists of cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin, but except from that there are also other substances in wood, like different types of metal ions that are needed for the tree’s photosynthesis. Since lignin by nature has a yellowish color, hydrogen peroxide, which has a bleaching effect on the lignin, is added. But when the hydrogen peroxide meets the metal ions they react and the bleaching effect is harmed. When MSH is added it binds the metal ions in the pulp in a way that makes the harmful reaction not to occur, and at the same time stabilizes the hydrogen peroxide in a whole new way, which was more than they wished for at BIM. For Itai Panas it is important to be relevant and that his work is meaningful to others. 

- Here we have a company with a clear challenge and that want me to work with them. If they can benefit from my work, then I’m happy, says Itai Panas. 
He thinks it is important that Chalmers is out in the real world and not only solves the challenges of the future but also those that exist today. Chalmers is a part of Gothenburg and West Sweden and it’s important that it shows in Chalmers’ collaborations. That makes Gothenburg even more competitive, he thinks. 
Now when BIM knows what they have new doors open in the product development. Helena Wassenius, Senior Scientist at BIM, says the initiation of the cooperation was like a staircase.  

Itai’s and Angelica’s help meant that we could take the next step in our product development. We had reached a point where we couldn't get any further and we needed to understand our product to lift the commercialization to the next level. Chalmers helped us with this in a very good way, she says.
Peter Wållberg adds that the cooperation with Itai and Angelica also opened new doors to the quantum chemical world which is something that will be of great benefit for BIM. 

The cooperation has also meant an assurance to invest and take the next step with the product and research and development. BIM could believe in their idea and stick to it, which led to a unique factory and a large pilot facility. Moreover the cooperation led to several new employments and also new specific MSH-products for example for recycled fiber. 
- It also makes us stronger when it comes to patents. If anyone would make a fuss then we can show that this is MSH and we have the patent, says Peter Wållberg.
Itai Panas thinks it is very important that Chalmers creates good relations with companies. Since Chalmers to a large extent is funded by taxes, you could argue that they are Chalmers’ employers, he thinks, but they also deliver problem formulations that are important for the academy.

- I get to learn the practical reality in which chemistry exists, where economic and environmental aspects are to be considered. When I lecture I have to be able to explain what good the topic I talk about makes. We are educating engineers, says Itai Panas.
He and BIM now take the collaboration a step further and are mutually applying for grants to explore how Graphene may be used in the pulp process.

Text and photo: Mats Tiborn

Published: Thu 28 Apr 2016.