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What's tall, tough and read all over.

What's tall, tough and read all over?

Despite its treeless terrain, southern Texas may someday bethe site of paper-pulp mills. The mills would make the pulp from an unfamiliar source: not wood chips or recycled paper, but a lanky relative of okra and cotton called kenaf. Even after 25 years of government research on the plant as a pulp supply, kenaf is far from a common sight on U.S. farmlands. But kenaf-pulping technology is reaching a private sector that has hopes the plant can capture a chunk of the U.S. paper market, while serving as a model in the search for new crop alternatives appealing to farmers. And with the first full-scale printing of a newspaper this month on kenaf-derived newsprint, those hopes moved closer to the marketplace and to the fields.

Otherwise known by the scientific name Cannabinus hibiscus,kenaf resembles a giant hollyhock, says Daniel E. Kugler, manager of the Kenaf Demonstration Project for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Washington, D.C. An annual plant, kenaf can grow from seedlings to its mature height of about 12 to 15 feet within a five-month growing season. Its fibrous trunk first attracted attention in the 1940s as a possible source of material for making string and twine. More recent USDA research programs have focused on kenaf as a fast-growing pulp source to help supply paper, an industry currently worth $58 billion per year in the United States.

The $1.4-million project headed by Kugler, begun in March1986, is the last in a series of joint efforts by federal and commercial groups to prove that paper made from kenaf could compete with that from traditional sources in both production costs and quality. A press run of 83,000 copies by the Bakersfield Californian on July 13 showed kenaf paper to be high-quality newsprint, says Kugler. The kenaf was grown in Texas, pulped in Ohio and made into newsprint in Quebec by processes that overcome its tendency to snarl and clog machinery.

Convinced that kenaf products can be competitively priced,a group headed by Charles S. Taylor of Kenaf International in McAllen, Tex., is planning a commercial-scale kenaf mill in Texas to be operational by mid-1990. Besides kenaf's speedy growth, another advantage is that processing it into pulp apparently requires less energy than that needed to prepare wood for paper production, says Taylor.

According to figures collected by the American PulpwoodAssociation in Washington, D.C., the total U.S. pulpwood consumption in 1986 exceeded 91 million cord units from domestic and Canadian sawmills. (A cord is a stack of wood approximately 128 cubic feet in size.) Association spokesman Neil Ward says the equivalent of half of every piece of wood becomes pulp, which is then converted to various paper products, rayon and particle board.

Although kenaf is used for paper in the Far East, it is too earlyto tell whether it could significantly replace wood for making paper in the United States and Canada, according to Ronald J. Slinn, vice-president of the New York-based American Paper Institute.

With lower quality standards than other types of paper,newsprint is the logical first step to prove the plant's worth. About 12 million metric tons of newsprint are used in the United States each year, says Ward. (Two-thirds of the U.S. newsprint supply currently is imported from Canada.)

"As far as kenaf is concerned, we don't see ourselvesnecessarily competing with wood [producers],' Taylor told SCIENCE NEWS. What he and others do expect is that farmers who now grow cotton will consider switching to kenaf, thereby providing economically depressed rural areas with an alternative cash crop. Research groups are designing farm equipment that might be adapted from that already used to harvest sugar cane, says Kugler. But it remains to be seen whether kenaf truly is a worthy paper component.
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Title Annotation:research on using kenaf to make paper
Publication:Science News
Date:Aug 1, 1987
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