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Opportunities Abound to Transform Wood Waste into Savings, Extra Profit
Biomass Article: Emergent technologies and new government policies allow companies to explore new commercial frontiers where wood waste can generate revenue or be used to save on fuel costs.
By Matthew Harrison
Date Posted: 9/1/2007
There’s something symbolic about sweeping up sawdust and scrap wood at the end of a long day of building pallets. The sound of a broom sweeping the shop floor is the sound of good business.
But what if your sawdust and wood debris could be turned into extra profit?
Emergent technologies and government policies favoring environmental sustainability are allowing pallet and sawmill companies to explore new commercial frontiers where wood waste can generate revenue.
Woody Waste for Heat
The federal government has begun to shift its focus on funding clean, renewable energy sources. Both federal and state governments are allowing tax credits and providing other incentives to hasten the spread of renewable energy, especially in rural communities.
For example, the Department of Agriculture, in conjunction with the Department of the Interior, has authorized funding for biofuel projects for businesses and local governments through the Biomass Commercial Use Grant Program and the Improved Biomass Use Grant Program until 2016.
With high oil prices, emergent technologies offer ways for companies to offset their winter heating costs. By burning woody biomass – bark, sawmill waste, scrap wood, grindings or sawdust — sawmills and pallet companies can reduce their reliance on oil, electricity, and natural gas.
Biomass Combustion Systems
Biomass Combustion Systems (BCS) offers a variety of wood-burning boilers and furnace systems to heat a wide range of buildings. “All of our systems burn wood hot and fast,” said principal owner Charles Cary.
One of the benefits of a BCS system is that they are as environmentally friendly as they are cost effective. “If you ask most people about wood fuel, they say it’s terrible,” said Charles. “But that’s only if you burn it inefficiently.” BCS furnaces re-burn the ash in a patented after burner chamber to reduce smoke while simultaneously producing more heat.
Large BCS boiler systems produce over 3 million British Thermal Units (BTUs) of heat energy per hour. “Most of our boiler systems are going to process applications, where there’s a year-round demand,” Charles said. “If you put a half a million dollars into a boiler, you don’t want it to sit there for six months.”
Excess heated created by the large-scale boiler systems have been used in dry-kiln operations, Cary said.
BCS also manufactures smaller shop heaters that provide 450,000-800,000 BTUs per hour. Options such as automated feeding systems and the BCS green fuel forced draft kit are available.
“We think in terms of wood providing very cheap BTUs that displace higher cost BTUs,” said Charles. A wood-burning furnace often can pay for itself in less than two years compared to other types of fuel.
The Energy Information Administration estimates that natural gas will cost roughly $1.30 per hundred cubic feet throughout 2007. Using a burner with 85% efficiency, natural gas would cost a company about $15.29 per million BTUs. On the other hand, for a company that pays $25 per ton for dry wood and uses a wood-burning furnace, the cost of fuel will be merely $2.40 per million BTU. For the average commercial building that requires roughly 1.2 billion BTUs per year, the difference is about $18,348 for natural gas and about $2,880 for dry wood.
Wood-Mizer has also entered the biomass fuel burning market. The new Bio-Mizer Bio-Dust burner is built specifically to burn biomass that has been converted to coarse dust (Bio-Dust). According to the Bio-Mizer website, these compact biomass burners are capable of burning a wide variety of biomass materials of biomass materials, ranging from ground corncobs to cardboard.
What started as a project to rid us of a waste problem, sawdust, has become an exciting new potential opportunity for Wood-Mizer and our customers,” said Scott Laskowski, head of R&D at Wood-Mizer’s Kentucky facility.
He added that most Wood-Mizers produce enough sawdust to heat the buildings that house them as well as the owner’s home.
Wood-Mizer reports that an average home in the Midwest can be heated for two days with sawdust from cutting 1000 bd/ft of lumber. The LT40/70, for example, can produce enough sawdust in a day to heat an average home for an entire week.
Like the BSC furnace systems, the Bio-Mizer is very efficient. Wood-Mizer claims the Bio-Mizer has unique design features that allow for complete combustion in a single pass burning of Bio-Dust. According to Scott “the Bio-Mizer attains complete combustion in one pass without the smoke that is plaguing the industry today. There is no turndown with the Bio-Mizer technology. Fuel to air mixture is regulated and turned on/off by computer control based on heat demand. The end result is high efficiency while burning ‘waste’ fuels with little to no smoke during ANY phase of combustion and less fuel consumed.”
Another benefit to the unique design of the Bio-Mizer is that it eliminates clinkers, or fused ash that’s caused from burning the ash too hot. Also, the ash is automatically removed.
Wood-Mizer is developing both domestic and industrial versions of the Bio-Mizer. The domestic model, ranging from $6,000 to $8,000 (including a fuel delivery system), will be capable of generating 150,000 output BTUs. The standard unit includes a high efficienchy 80 gallon boiler type heat exchanger that can be plugged into any existing hydronic system.
The makers of the Bio-Mizer estimate that an average 2000 square foot home will consume roughly 5-10 pounds of sawdust per hour. Connecting the burner to heating ducts is a relatively simple affair. The bio-Mizers are compatible with hydronic (radiator) heating system, floor radiant heat, as well as air-to-air heat exchangers.
The industrial version generates 1 million BTUs for approximately $15,000 - $20,000. Both models can burn wet fuel as well.
While thermal energy from biomass provides a good investment incentive, scientists are beginning to explore the feasibility of deriving electric energy from biofuels.
Community Power Corporation has developed a generator-like device to create electricity from burning woody biomass. The aptly named BioMax biopower systems are miniature cogeneration power plants, capable of producing thermal and electrical energy simultaneously.
Current BioMax modules produce between 5-50 kilowatts of electricity and 50,000 to 500,000 BTUs per hour. Only 1.5 kilograms of biofuel is required to produce each kilowatt of electric power.
“We’ve had some success with commercial applications,” said founder Robb Walt. “We’re shipping about one every three months now, and that’s accelerating.” His company has installed three 50-kilowatt units and three 25-kilowatt units in the last six months, with more orders pending.
Providing a base price for the units is difficult because each installation is custom designed to meet energy needs, Robb noted. “Some need driers for their wood chips, some want combined heat power, and some not,” he said, naming just a few of the variables.
“We’re not selling them to individuals for domestic use,” said Robb. “We’re about a year away from that.”
A typical house requires about 3 kilowatts of peak power and about 30 kilowatt hours of energy each day. On average, a BioMax 25 could provide enough electricity for about five houses, including some breathing room for power spikes.
Wood-Mizer also hopes to develop its Bio-Mizer design into a cogeneration power system. “We have something on paper, and we hope we will have a proof of concept prototype before the end of the year,” says Hans Duerichen, lead engineer on the Bio-Mizer project. He added that his company intends to manufacture a five kilowatt domestic unit that will produce thermal and electric power simultaneously.
Markets for Residuals
Pallet companies and sawmills can expand their businesses models to turn residuals like sawdust and wood debris into added sources of revenue. Applications include landscape mulch, animal bedding, or stock for particleboard or other wood products.
Mark Hoffman, owner of Larson Pallets in Milipitas, Calif., started selling his company’s sawdust and wood scrap after dabbling in an experimental program that used wood waste to manufacture engineered wood products.
“For us, it’s more about cost avoidance,” said Mark. “We could pay to haul it off or get a grinder and make it revenue neutral, or maybe even make a little money on it.”
The company has a grinder that it feeds scrap pallets and wood. Most of the grindings are sold to a nearby particleboard plant. The sales account for about 1% of the company’s revenues.
“We don’t make a lot on it because we still have to pay for shipping,” said Mark. “We haul it off, so we pay for maintenance for a trailer and truck, but we still make money on it.” Larsen Pallet transports the wood waste with a 110-cubic-yard possum-belly.
At one time Larson Pallets tried to market grindings for animal bedding. However, other companies that made grindings from trees and scrap new lumber “freaked out” the farmers. They warned the farmers of potential threats associated with wood from recycled pallets.
Mark found it difficult to assuage their fears about toxic chemicals and nails. Even using screens to remove scrap metal from the grindings would not persuade the farmers that animal bedding from recycled pallets was safe.
Sawmills and companies that manufacture new pallets have a better chance of marketing wood grindings for animal bedding. Even so, some pallet recyclers remain undaunted in their efforts to sell sawdust and grindings for animal bedding. Matt Tasler, president of Trade Well Pallets in Gretna, Neb., makes a concerted effort to sift through used pallets and discard pallets that may have been used to transport hazardous chemicals.
“Pallets that are supposed to be for pesticide-use-only are stenciled,” said Matt. “We watch for those and dispose of them.”
Realistically, though, it’s impossible to guarantee that none of the pallets going into the grinder at one time carried chemicals. “It’s something we watch for,” Matt said, “but to be honest, I don’t know how you would guarantee that the used pallets have never seen a chemical. That’s just difficult to do.” He washes pallets that may have carried chemicals before grinding them.
Farmers in the Midwest have shifted from using straw to sawdust or grindings for animal bedding because it’s light-weight, easy to handle and cheap. Strong demand has driven up prices.
“When the price goes up, you have more options for what you can do with the material,” Matt noted. Trade Well Pallets developed several different types of grindings for animal bedding based on size, consistency, and moisture content of the wood. For instance, a farmer may want a larger wood chip for cattle shows or fine sawdust for irrigation units.
Having new markets for residuals is a “good trend,” said Matt. There are plenty of opportunities to turn wood waste into revenue. Whether it’s burning wood waste for fuel or marketing grindings, the options can add to a company’s bottom line. Better still, your company will have a positive impact on the environment, which might just make some of your customers as happy as your accountant.