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Value-added pellet product

BC company Premium Pellet is helping L & M Lumber to better utilize its wood waste and turn out a value-added product.

By Jim Stirling

A proven partnership provides a positive springboard for venturing into the unknown. L & M Lumber Ltd and Avison Management Services characterized that approach in combining forces to produce Premium Pellet Ltd and usher in a new era of wood biomass utilization for the two companies. 

The new $7-million plant has a design capacity of 100,000 tonnes of wood pellets a year. Product applications range from clean, environmentally friendly home and industrial heating to animal bedding. The Premium Pellet plant is adjacent to L & M Lumber and its sister Nechako Lumber Company's sawmilling, planer and dry kiln operations at Vanderhoof, in the geographical heart of British Columbia. The term "wood waste" is actually no longer in the companies' vocabulary. 

Bark from the milling operations heats oil to fire the dry kilns and heat the mills while white wood residues are now converted to pellets. Waste from the entire wood product complex is now an enviable 0.5 per cent. Avison Management is a forestry services consulting firm and has been L & M's client for 22 years. They have been growing with the company and helping them develop new sources of wood fibre and assisting with forestry planning and engineering, explains Norm Avison, president of both his consulting company and Premium Pellet. 

"I've always been keen on efficient usage and first looked into pellets in 1994," Avison recalls. But that was a time when an MDF plant was under active consideration in nearby Prince George, and fibre availability for a pellet plant as well was questionable. A couple of years later, Avison visited Sweden-where 40 per cent of its energy production comes via wood biomass utilization-and that reinforced his opinion that the market potential for pellets was growing and would continue to develop. 

More recently, L & M was examining re-manufacturing and joint venture opportunities to diversify into the value added sector and better utilize waste. "I put my hand up and said 'What about pellets?'" says Avison. An extensive planning process followed: pellet manufacturing was new territory for the partners and they were determined to do it right. 

Plant construction began in the summer of 2000 and that involved working with another proven partner. Del-Tech Industries Inc of Prince George was the general contractor on the project, supplying and building some plant equipment and installing all of it. Del-Tech had earlier supplied and installed L & M and Nechako's energy system. 

The construction phase proceeded smoothly, allowing a production start-up in January 2001. Process familiarity and production have been steadily ramping upwards. Controlling moisture content and product density are key elements in Premium Pellet's extensive quality control programs to meet differing market demands. Elaborate high pressure, air blown collection systems reclaim chip fines and planer shavings along with sawdust in a separate flow from the mills' lumber production processes. 

The two materials are stored in high capacity collection bins. The materials never touch the ground to ensure their cleanliness, adds Avison. The sawdust runs 45 to 50 per cent moisture content while the shavings range from 10 to 15 per cent. Normal target moisture control for fuel product pellets is five per cent with animal bedding products and other customer requirements a little higher. Consequently, the drier has to handle a combination of moisture contents. 

A computer determines the percentage of shavings to sawdust to control moisture and combines them prior to drying. After shaking and screening, the streams of material are recovered; the desired size is around 3/16ths of an inch. Oversize is reduced through a hammermill. 

The fine dust is recovered, delivered to a surge bin and used to fuel the drier, reducing natural gas costs. Recycling and re-using materials is a feature throughout the plant and emphasizes the commitment to eradicate waste. The dried, sized material enters surge bins above the two pellet mills. It's fed first through conditioners where steam is injected to warm up and soften the wood's natural lignums. 

That is the binding element which, under pressure and heat, creates the wood pellets within the mills. "We looked at lots of different kinds of pellet mills, in operation and bankruptcy, and we went to equipment manufacturers from the west coast to the east. Then we decided what we wanted," continues Avison. 

That turned out to be two Pioneer pellet mills manufactured by Bliss Industries in Oklahoma. "We liked the design-they're skookum machines and wood pellet mills are a fairly harsh environment." The mills are each powered by a 400-hp motor and can produce six tonnes of pellets an hour. Bliss Industries also supplied the hammermill. 

From the pellet mills, the product goes across a shaker to collect and recycle dust. The pellets then embark up an elevator where a counter flow cooler of ambient temperature reduces the pellets from around 215 degrees F to room temperature. The cooling re-gels the lignums and makes the pellets more durable for handling. Pellets are collected in a 600-tonne storage bin from which they can be shipped bulk by rail car, truck or screened and bagged. The pellet making process is highly automated, requiring only two people a shift. 

The operation also requires a millwright, maintenance person, three people for bagging and a clean-up crew. The plant concept was developed in-house and the flow design was refined by Solagen of Oregon. Other project participants, apart from Del-Tech, included BM & M for screens and Westeel for the storage bin. 

Premium Pellet has developed markets for its products in various parts of North America and exported test shipments to Holland. The trick is to get more Canadians turned on to pellet use. Avison says wood pellets are both cheaper and cleaner for heating any size of building. Premium Pellet was talking with the local school district about converting a school to pellet heating. 

Talking is one thing but demonstrating can be quite another when it comes to introducing people to a new product or concept. That's why, says Avison, Premium Pellet is handling a Danish line of pellet burning equipment called Dantrim. The equipment comes in sizes to heat a single house to firing dry kilns. "Potential customers want to see the pellets in operation. This way we can set up equipment of different sizes and detail all the costs involved," he explains. 

As market demands grow, as Premium Pellet believes they will, the opportunity exists to use more wood fibre that is now either being wasted or under-utilized. They can use more of the total tree fibre, declares Avison. "We can bring in tops from the bush but first the market levels have to go up to pay for them coming in."

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