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Interview with Dr. Markus Wildberger and Prof. Dr. Markus Biesalski

MFP News
22.11.2023

Since 2018, Dr Markus Wildberger, Chairman of the Shareholders’ Committee, and Prof. Dr Markus Biesalski, Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board, have been passionately committed to the project. In this interview with Ina Kruse, you can find out why they are doing what they do, what fascinates them about paper as a product and how they imagine the future of paper.

Kruse: How did you become interested in paper and what fascinates you about the subject? Where does your passion for paper come from?

Wildberger: I came to the subject through my studies. I am Austrian and studied process engineering in Graz. Graz University of Technology is the only institute in Austria where you can study paper and pulp technology in the second stage of your degree programme. What fascinated me was the variety of papers, the raw materials used and the production of paper. To put it bluntly, papermaking is both a science and a philosophy in itself: two identical paper machines will never produce exactly the same paper due to the many influencing factors. This means that a great deal of interdisciplinary experience and systematic thinking is required to produce a functional paper based on sustainable organic and inorganic raw materials in line with its application.

Kruse: So the production of paper has become a philosophy for you?

Wildberger: Yes, because many disciplines and sciences come together to produce a sheet of paper. In paper production, for example, chemistry, physics, thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, materials science and process engineering come together to create a fascinating product.

Kruse: Professor Biesalski, what was it like for you?

Biesalski: I studied chemistry and specialised in polymers during my studies and subsequent doctorate. My specialism at the time was “polymers on surfaces”, i.e. thin films and coatings. And I have remained true to these to a certain extent, as I am now particularly interested in the surface properties of paper. In 2008, I accepted a professorship in Darmstadt. This professorship goes back to the first German cellulose chemistry institute. Cellulose is the basic building block of paper fibres and the exciting thing I then discovered was how I could combine my own interests in polymer coatings with paper as a material in such a way that improved or completely new and exciting paper properties would achieved. For me, the special thing about paper is its diverse properties. Paper has extraordinary mechanical characteristics – for example, it is extremely tensile when dry. Its features in the presence of fluids, such as water, are also very exciting. Paper can transport water without pumps thanks to its capillary force. Paper also consists of an incredible number of interfaces, what opens many possibilities for introducing new functions. If you combine these three property profiles, the mechanical and fluidic characteristics as well as the interface properties, you can create great visions for new papers and you can imagine paper in fields of application where they are not present today.

To get there, we need the science that takes care of this paper functionalisation, that’s one thing. But we can also think about circularity, of course, sustainability and the topic of energy should not be ignored. And now we come to the topic of the Modellfabrik Papier and now cut, third point: how did I get to the MFP? With this fascination for the material properties, we must not forget that today we use a lot of energy to make paper. And in principle, based on how paper is constructed, you can imagine and develop visions of how paper can perhaps be produced using considerably less energy. And that is basically the core topic of the Modellfabrik Papier and what drives us all here in this network.

Kruse: I can see from your lively answers that you are highly motivated and that both your company Koehler, Mr Wildberger, and your institute, Mr Biesalski, place great emphasis on research. Now to the MFP, what is the most important aspect for you?

Wildberger: The MFP focusses on the goal of drastically reducing the carbon footprint and energy consumption. The Modellfabrik Papier enables us to work together on this topic in an innovative and disruptive way, which is something the industry urgently needs. We think and act for the long term and place a special focus on transfer. The demands on the culture of how research and innovation is conducted in the industry now and in the future have changed. People are thinking in terms of co-operations to bundle strengths and expertise. The Modellfabrik Papier is proof of this. It would not have existed ten years ago.

Kruse: What was the turning point for you?

Wildberger: On the one hand, the industry realised that major changes can no longer be managed on its own. Defining a challenge that affects us all as a beacon and developing a collaborative project from it was the turning point for me personally. Achieving extensive and sustainable change requires a long-term approach and needs resources, infrastructure and the right people. This was a key motivation for the industry and our scientific partners to take on the important issues to enable long-term planning. Markus, what is your assessment?

Biesalski: That also reflects my opinion. When I first encountered colleagues in the paper industry in 2008, I realised that there was a very strong community in this industry. I immediately recognised a desire to work together on major issues. There were already many short-term and medium-term projects within the framework of the association’s funding opportunities, for example INFOR projects or projects funded by the Industrial Collective Research Programme (IGF). However, it had not been possible to pursue the big goals that we are now tackling together. You need a much larger consortium for that. In 2018, this idea emerged from discussions between industrial and scientific partners. About ten companies put their hats on, defined a structure and a goal and then founded the non-profit limited company with other companies. With the Modellfabrik Papier, a broad range of expertise was realised with plant manufacturers, paper manufacturers, paper suppliers and paper equipment suppliers. The question of location was decided in favour of Düren, as a paper town with many suitable facets. After financing our first projects from our own funds, another important step was the approval of the large joint research project FOMOP as the first federally funded research component of the Modellfabrik Papier. This is a great honour, confirming that the MFP idea is new, scientifically challenging and innovative. So that, if successful, paper can still be produced in our regions in 20 years’ time and we can continue to be one of the top 5 paper-producing countries in the world.

Wildberger: It is exciting that we defined this goal back in 2018/2019, that the 80% energy saving was so important to us long before the current explosive topic of the energy crisis. The consortium has thus shown that the right strategic direction had been developed to support the industry in the long term.

Kruse: Typically, companies react to crises by focusing on their core business and day-to-day operations again, and the medium to long-term strategic view suffers as a result. Do you think that the change in thinking that has arisen as part of the MFP will be maintained or will it suffer?

Wildberger: The companies are definitely focusing on their core business, but they are very lucky that the Modellfabrik Papier exists and that the MFP was founded in advance, which is now addressing these issues. Today would certainly be a much worse time to set up such a consortium. That’s why it’s so important that the Modellfabrik Papier is now successfully demonstrating that collaborative research is definitely the right way to tackle these important issues, because it is independent of the crisis.

Biesalski: Yes, that’s absolutely right. The bundling of very different expertise with a long-term goal shapes the project beyond economic periods. In my opinion, the great potential of the Modellfabrik Papier is to be able to think in terms of short-term, medium-term and long-term projects, and to provide added value for the industry. However, this also harbours a risk. I am firmly convinced that we can generate special solutions here that will then be adopted and implemented by the industry.

Kruse: If I have understood you correctly, that is the great motivation: to tackle the major challenges of energy consumption for this industry together with research, politics and industry.

Wildberger: Absolutely. The paper industry and its suppliers are an indispensable part of the bioeconomy, of circularity. It makes a significant contribution to the climate targets. This enthusiasm and motivation must now be put into practice by all those involved. This should then generate transfer projects that are scaled up with investment from industry – “innovation through investment”.

Biesalski: You also have to recognise that this is by far the largest joint project that the paper industry has ever set up in Germany. If you look at the 24 companies and seven scientific institutes involved today, there is a great deal of momentum here. Some of the institutes had hardly any contact with the paper industry before the Modellfabrik Papier and they now recognise that paper is an exciting subject and product. And many companies are also participating and conducting research for the first time in such a large project in collaboration with science.

Wildberger: Individual companies don’t have the resources themselves to conduct disruptive or basic research. With the Modellfabrik Papier, we also support each other in this.

Kruse: Finally, a quick round of questions: A lot has happened for the Modellfabrik Papier in 2023. How did you experience this in your role?

Biesalski: The year 2023 set an important course for the MFP. For me, this year marked a special point within the Modellfabrik Papier, as we were able to acquire funding. It is an appreciation of the successful joint and goal-oriented work of all partners. We have also paved the way for the physical existence of a Modellfabrik Papier in Düren. And the third point, which is very important to me, also from the point of view of the scientific advisory board, is that we have managed to become a close-knit community, perhaps also due to the hurdles we faced in acquiring the funding, with far-reaching appreciation for each other. It was definitely a dynamic, exciting and successful year.

Wildberger: From my point of view, it was one of the most challenging years since the MFP was founded. Due to the process of acquiring the funding, fundamental questions were once again raised regarding the direction of the project. As a result, the involvement of the Shareholders’ Committee in 2023 was also higher than expected.

Kruse: What are you particularly looking forward to regarding the MFP for 2024?

Wildberger: (laughs) We’re just thinking from week to week, right now the industrial world is moving so fast…
Biesalski: I’m looking forward to creative research! And to creative young minds that we are now integrating. That we can set up an effective operational team that will later consist of 25 young scientists. I am very excited to see what creative ideas will emerge there and what promising results we will achieve.
Wildberger: I’m looking forward to the initial results and potential transfer projects for industry. But I’m also looking forward to less administration, less bureaucracy and that we can focus on the actual core topic in 2024, which is what we intend to do with the Modellfabrik Papier: disruptive research and transfer.

Kruse: What is your favourite paper product?

Biesalski: I’m traditional: stationery! It’s something I rarely use, but when I do, I really enjoy doing it. Especially in the run-up to Christmas, it’s a great way to slow down. And I can see many exciting future fields of application for 4D papers.
Wildberger: Functional papers: the combination of classic paper with its haptics and an additional function makes it a high-quality product with a wide range of applications. Paper as a fibre matrix offers countless possibilities for creative, innovative solutions like no other industrially manufactured product.

Kruse: Thank you very much for your time!

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Do you have any questions?

Feel free to contact us if you would like to find out more about Modellfabrik Papier, our tasks and our projects.

Discover more news

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Learn more about us

Do you have any questions?

Feel free to contact us if you would like to find out more about Modellfabrik Papier, our tasks and our projects.

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