Sunday, July 5, 2009

Connections of paper industry microbiology to other sectors of microbiology: what is actually needed?

To make any definitions of paper industry microbiology, it makes sense to compare it with elder sectors of microbiology. Despite the microbiological problems of the paper processes and the paper products have been obvious since the beginning of machine-scale production of paper and board on 19th century, their effects have get worser when the scale, speed and raw material repertoir have increased during last decades. The tradition of the microbiological control, as well as the history of biocide research, intended in the "healthcare" of paper and board machines is therefore much shorter than in related areas like in dairy or food microbiology.

Paper manufacturing processes could be seen as ecosystems where several, complicated microbiological processes are continuing day and night. Microbial communities perform their important role as the actors of chemical transformations which shall modify most living and very many non-living substances into forms which will support the growth of other living creatures. Many species of immigrant bacteria, coming into the processes with the raw water, mechanical fibres and several additives, will feel fine: favourable temperature, pH level and nutrient concentrations, as well as good aeration and a huge supply of contact surfaces to build up biofilms, are available for them. They really do not make any difference between their lives outside and inside of the paper mill walls.

Unfortunately (not for the microbes but for the paper production) there are some features of paper machines which are similar with fermentor and bioreactor processes of biotechnological industry. So many growth factors (some of them were mentioned above) will be kept on so controlled levels that the adaptation of certain microbiological population cannot be avoided. It shall also be kept in mind that the long running periods will increase the microbiological risks by allowing long growing periods of microbes inside the machines.

How to control these problems?

Measures to dose biocidic compounds into the processes cannot be avoided because the conditions of paper and board machines cannot be adjusted on biocidic levels: the rise of the overall temperature over +80 oC is impossible, like the rise of pH value over 12. Before significant technical improvements to prevent the microbial growth in the paper machine processes could be done (if ever), the biocidic treatments and their rapid control methods like ON LINE biofilm measurements and frequent (at least once per 8 hours) AT LINE microbiological control of the main contaminating routes, wet end processes and towers containing white waters, pulps and brokes are the most important tools to secure the runnability of the machines and the quality of the products.

With the price of only 2-3 jumbo rolls can reliable instruments for the AT LINE microbiological control of the wet end processes be bought today. Alternative methods, many of them representing molecular biology methods, are available, but those which can show not only the counts of certain species but also the overall metabolic activities of the waterborne microbes and their potential to produce biofilms should be preferred. A combination of PMEU incubations and ATP Assays, with the addition of PCR if needed, is the most recommended procedure to show the effects of biocides on the microbial activity. PMEU method can be applied to biofilm testing, too.

The most important thing is that not only the counts of microbes (how high they may ever been) but also their overall metabolic activity and certain actions like breakdown of starches by amylase enzymes or production of H2S and H2 in anaerobic conditions shall be controlled all the time when the machines are running. All the laws of microbial ecology are present both in the nature and inside the machines - and they can lead to severe problems if counteracting does not work.

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