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Logging in to a New Market
Alberta's Buchanan Lumber has moved into utilizing residual wood in a big way, producing firelogs made from wood shavings, and selling the logs everywhere from Quebec to Texas.
By Tony Kryzanowski
Putting another log on the fire has taken on new meaning. Today, it could mean a firelog manufactured entirely from wood residuals--and that's a product that Alberta's Buchanan Lumber has considerable experience manufacturing at its High Prairie sawmill.
Northern Alberta is somewhat of a hotbed when it comes to converting wood residuals to energy products, with wood pellet mills operating at LaCrete Sawmills in LaCrete and at Vanderwell Contractors in Slave Lake. Buchanan Lumber, however, has taken a different approach, opting instead for firelogs and fuel pucks.
"Our firelog is really an overgrown wood pellet," says Ken Dobson, the owner of Forestech Enterprises Ltd. Based in Edmonton, he has considerable consulting experience, dating back nearly 30 years, first with Coutts Machinery and then with Almac Machine Works. Dobson helped Buchanan Lumber research firelog manufacturing technology, worked with them to install a Swiss technology-based unit, and continues to regularly monitor the equipment's performance.
"These firelogs basically have the same BTU characteristics as wood pellets," he adds. "The technology is out of Europe, where these types of machines and the market for these logs are very popular, and is probably 60 years old."
Buchanan Lumber has a well-established philosophy aimed at full log utilization. The sawmill produces about 110 million board feet of lumber annually in dimensions from 2" X 3" to 2" X 6" up to 10' in length from its spruce and pine wood diet. It also produces 20' timbers in a variety of dimensions.
Mill manager Wayne Midnight says the firelog line provides six additional jobs when in full operation on two shifts. Marketing this relatively new product to North America has not been without its challenges, but he says that the company believes it has a bright future and will keep marketing it aggressively. Producing firelogs has also given the company a handy outlet for its wood residues.
"It helps us get rid of a lot of waste that we previously had to burn or put into stockpiles," says Midnight. "It just wasn't used." In addition to firelogs, the company also bags some of its wood shavings for use as animal bedding.
Dobson says that producing firelogs instead of wood pellets is a simpler process, requiring a lot less power. Also, he says that the firelogs produced by Buchanan Lumber do not require a specialized stove, but can be burned in any standard fireplace or stove.
The sawmill has opted to use its planer mill wood residuals exclusively because the material is already dried. The moisture in a firelog has to be between 6 and 10 per cent, whereas the sawdust from a sawmill typically has a moisture content of between 33 and 50 per cent. It is possible to use sawdust from sawmills, but it needs to be dried first, which adds to processing costs.
Dobson says that the material in a firelog does not consist of wood waste, but wood residue, which means dry shavings and sawdust. Also, there are no resins holding the firelog together. It is a 100 per cent natural wood product.
"It is the natural process of compression and densification in the machine that hold it together," says Dobson. "The natural wood lignin flows at a certain temperature when we start to compress it and that is what overlaps the fibres and keeps it together."
Each log is about 3 5/8" in diameter, measures about a foot long, and weighs about 5 lbs.
The compression process results in a 10-to-one size reduction in the raw material, Dobson says. In other words, rather than transporting 10 truckloads of shavings, the company can transport the same volume of shavings as a value-added firelog product in one truckload.
While there are a variety of systems available, Buchanan Lumber opted for technology supplied by Swiss equipment manufacturer, Pawert-SPM AG, as well as another company, Hansa. Buchanan Lumber owner Gordon Buchanan purchased the right to manufacture European-based Hansa firelog manufacturing equipment, built one unit, and installed it at the sawmill. It is a single line system while the Pawert-SPM AG system is a dual line system, meaning that the sawmill actually operates three production lines.
Dobson worked with Buchanan Lumber to modify the Hansa technology so that it operates similarly to the Pawert-SPM machine.
"It was a bit of a technical process to get everything right, to be able to make these firelogs and to be able to hold them together," says Dobson. "We have conducted a fair amount of research and development to be able to achieve that."
The sawdust and shavings are stored in a silo and conveyed to the firelog machines as needed. The material is metered into the top chamber of the firelog press, which consists of a reciprocating crankshaft that pushes the material through a tapered, cylindrical dye. The machine comes equipped with 21 different dyes because the process to manufacture a firelog with consistent quality and BTU output is different for each wood species. Buchanan Lumber is using a wood diet of about 90 per cent pine and 10 per cent spruce. At present, they consume between three and four tons per hour of material, and produce between 15,000 and 20,000 tons of firelog material annually.
The piston that compresses the material in the machine fires at about 200 strokes per minute, creating about a half inch of firelog material with each stroke. The heat used in this process is entirely self-generated, meaning that no additional heat is needed to manufacture this energy product.
"We are trying to force a square peg into a round hole in theory," says Dobson. "So what happens is that the dye can get very, very hot. We actually have to cool it with a water-cooling system to keep the dye at a certain temperature."
Buchanan Lumber is able to produce between five and six feet of firelog material per minute. Because the compressed material is discharged in half-inch increments in a continuous process, this is what gives the company the option of producing either foot long firelogs or half inch thick fuel pucks, which are typically used as a fuel source in boiler systems. They are commonly used by power plants in Europe. Buchanan Lumber benefits by having the ability to manufacture two different products using the same machine.
As the processed material exits the machine, it cools. The log material accumulates along a 100' long cooling line. The material at the end of the line is cut into foot long firelogs.
"It is a fairly dynamic machine," Dobson says, describing the Pawert-SPM AG firelog unit. "The flywheels are about six feet in diameter and each of them weighs about 6000 lbs. It is a kind of technology built on old theory, where you use low electric power, but it has the big flywheels to keep it running all the time."
He adds that the equipment is also robust and capable of operating continuously for a long period of time.
"It can run 24/7," he says. "That is
Pawert-SPM AG also offers a variety of equipment sizes, with the ability in some cases to use different types of fibre. Dobson estimates that a new installation would probably cost between $3 million and $5 million.
Being among the first primary forest product manufacturers in Western Canada to diversify into an energy product, Buchanan Lumber has had to build its market essentially from the ground up. At present, its firelogs are being sold by the company under the 'Wood Only Firelog' product line and also by another distributor as the Phoenix firelog. Dobson acknowledges that breaking into the local market has been a challenge because of the availability of cheap natural gas. However, the company has experienced good success in places like Quebec, where the public is much more aware of the use and benefits of firelogs as a heat source, the northeastern United States in places like Maine, and the company has even shipped product to Texas. Places like Yellowknife are also developing into another potential market as they consider alternative energy sources to replace expensive heating oil, and it is not that far from northern Alberta.
"The market is absolutely on the rise," says Dobson. The decision by Ontario to phase out power generation using coal by 2014 is also a very positive development toward expanding the potential domestic market for wood energy products, he adds, and Buchanan Lumber already has extensive experience shipping product to that market.
Furthermore, as the mountain pine beetle has a greater impact on the Alberta pine forest, there may be greater demand for firelog technology as companies struggle to capture some value from a wood resource that becomes less and
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