Enhancing the effectiveness of a laccase–TEMPO treatment on sisal pulp by increasing pulp consistency was for the first time found to increase the biorefining potential of this enzyme–mediator system. The operating conditions used were those previously found to maximize oxidative functionalization and paper strength. Prior to the enzyme treatment, the pulp was refined at a variable intensity (0, 3,000 and 4,500 revolutions) in order to ascertain whether the increased surface area would lead to enhanced functionalization and boost the refining effect as a result. Increasing pulp consistency increased the contents in aldehyde and carboxyl groups by 130% and 94%, respectively. Also, it resulted in more marked reduction of pulp viscosity during the enzyme treatment, especially at a high refining intensity; this had a detrimental effect on fibre strength and significantly reduced tear strength in the refined pulp. Oxidized pulp exhibited a considerably increased water retention value with respect to the initial pulp, particularly after refining. Dry tensile index was increased by 21, 18 and 12%, and burst index by 23, 16 and 13% at 0, 3,000 and 4,500 rev, respectively, by the laccase–TEMPO treatment as a result of increased inter-fibre hydrogen bonding offsetting the loss of fibre strength, an effect that can provide substantial savings in refining energy. Based on the results, a laccase–TEMPO treatment is an enzymatic booster of mechanical refining with the added advantages of providing unaltered drainability and increased air permeability. The most salient effect of the laccase–TEMPO treatment was an increase in wet tensile strength (by 160, 553 and 588% at 0, 3,000 and 4,500 rev, respectively) that can be ascribed to inter-fibre covalent bonding through hemiacetal linkages promoted by aldehyde groups. The improvement was much greater than that obtained at a lower consistency under identical conditions.
Elisabetta Aracri, T. Vidal