Wood and other plant materials used to make pulp contain three main components (apart from water): cellulose fibres (desired for papermaking), lignin (a three-dimensional polymer that binds the cellulose fibres together) and hemicelluloses, (shorter branched carbohydrate polymers). The aim of pulping is to break down the bulk structure of the fiber source, be it chips, stems or other plant parts, into the constituent fibers.
Chemical pulping achieves this by degrading the lignin and hemicellulose into small, water-soluble molecules which can be washed away from the cellulose fibers without depolymerizing the cellulose fibres (chemically depolymerizing the cellulose weakens the fibers). The various mechanical pulping methods, such as groundwood (GW) and refiner mechanical (RMP) pulping, physically tear the cellulose fibres one from another. Much of the lignin remains adhering to the fibres. Strength is impaired because the fibres may be cut. There are a number of related hybrid pulping methods that use a combination of chemical and thermal treatment to begin an abbreviated chemical pulping process, followed immediately by a mechanical treatment to separate the fibers. These hybrid methods include thermomechanical pulping (TMP) and chemithermomechanical pulping (CTMP). The chemical and thermal treatments reduce the amount of energy subsequently required by the mechanical treatment, and also reduce the amount of strength loss suffered by the fibers.
Much of the information about the technology in following subsections is from the book by C.J. Biermann.. The chemistry of the various pulping processes can be found in Sjöström's book.
The material fed into the digester must be small enough to allow the pulping liquor to penetrate the pieces completely. In the case of wood, the logs are chipped and the chips screened so that what is fed to the digester is a uniform size. The oversize chips are rechipped or used as fuel, sawdust is burned. The screened chips or cut plant material (bamboo, kenaf, etc) goes to the digester where it is mixed an aqueous solution of the pulping chemicals, then heated with steam. In the kraft process the pulping chemicals are sodium hydroxide and sodium sulfide and the solution is known as white liquor. In the sulfite process the pulping chemical is a mixture of metal (sodium, magnesium, potassium or calcium) or ammonium sulfite or bisulfite. After several hours in the digester, the chips or cut plant material breaks down into a thick porridge-like consistency and is "blown" or squeezed from the outlet of the digester through an airlock. The sudden change in pressure results in a rapid expansion of the fibers, separating the fibres even more. The resulting fiber suspension in water solution is called "brown stock".
Brown stock washers, using countercurrent flow, remove the spent cooking chemicals and degraded lignin and hemicellulose. The extracted liquid, known as black liquor in the kraft process, and red or brown liquor in the sulfite processes, is concentrated, burned and the sodium and sulfur compounds recycled in the recovery process. Lignosulfonates are a useful byproduct recovered from the spent liquor in the sulfite process. The clean pulp (stock) can be bleached in the bleach plant or left unbleached, depending on the end use. The stock is sprayed onto the pulp machine wire, water drains off, more water is removed by pressing the sheet of fibers, and the sheet is then dried. At this point the sheets of pulp are several millimeters thick and have a coarse surface: it is not yet paper. The dried pulp is cut, stacked, bailed and shipped to another facility for whatever further process is needed.
Bleached kraft pulp and bleached sulfite pulp are used to make high quality, white printing paper. One of the most visible uses for unbleached kraft pulp is to make brown paper shopping bags and wrapping paper where strength is particularly important. A special grade of bleached sulfite pulp, known as dissolving pulp, is used to make cellulose derivatives such as methylcellulose which are used in a wide range of everyday products from laxatives to baked goods to wallpaper paste.