Letters From The Earth

Industrial Pellets

March 30, 2010

In my March/April column I wrote about wood pellets. I explained that the caloric value of the pellet is much greater because you have densified the cellulose. You have created an energy source that approximates coal. This has been one of the reasons for the surge in demand for wood pellets, for both residential and industrial use.

The key driver is a focus on renewable energy both here and in Europe. Legislation is now in place in the Western Hemisphere that forces industry to consider alternative feed stocks to coal, oil, and gas. The state of Ohio, for example, has legislated that all electrical utilities must generate at least 25 percent of their energy from alternative sources to fossil fuel by the year 2024. Solar and wind turbines can provide some of this requirement. Wood pellets can provide a bit more. The industrial pellet, on the other hand, can provide a large percentage of this requirement. The beauty of the industrial pellet is diversion of materials being landfilled at considerable cost into a product that generates energy, with fewer emissions and less ash, that is almost equal to coal.

Both wood and industrial pellets qualify as feed stocks for renewable energy. There can be no debate on that issue. The debate may focus on the manufacturing process, whether it is intrusive, or the "NIMBY" mentality, the attitude and response to any new approach.

Actually, industrial pellets aren't new. They have been around for at least 30 years, maybe longer. Industrial pellets and cubes have been produced in America since the 1970s. I have personally been associated with 10 different companies over the years that made pellets or cubes, starting in the early '80s with a company in Iowa called Cuber Corporation. Cuber and most of the others either burned down or failed financially. The reason: no driver, no demand. Remember, the interest in alternative energy and sustainability is relatively new. These companies were clearly ahead of their time. We have a different situation today.

What is an industrial pellet or cube? Unlike the wood pellet which is entirely cellulosic, the industrial pellet is made from any or all of the following non-recyclables: coated mill wrappers, plastic coated cups, polycoated kraft, pressure sensitive labelstock, plastic sindow and envelope cuttings, coated tube and core stock, waxed cup cuttings, polylaminated scrap, bookbinding waste, polycoated box board, fly leaf shavings with hot melt, waxed corrugated, polycoated diaper stock, wet strength scrap, polycoated slab stock, coated butt ends, carbon forms, photographic paper waste, flexible packaging waste, and photographic films.

None of these materials can be recycled in the traditional sense. They can't be remelted or repulped because of contaminates like adhesive or laminated layers of different resin technologies.
Like the wood pellet, the manufacturing process densifies the materials into a pellet or cube. The finished product is hard. In my opinion a pellet is easier to manufacture than a cube. I also think the pellet generates higher yields in burning. It stays more compressed and feeds more easily into a coal fired boiler. Here's what the two look like:

Industrial pellets are manufactured for industrial coal burning applications. The pellets are intended to be a direct substitute for coal with little or no modifications in handling and/or in the boiler. The pellet burns cleaner than coal because it generates less SOx and NOx.

Feed stocks such as those described above are delivered to the pelletizing plant in trucks or rail cars. The materials are either baled or loose in compactors. For years I have talked about two major issues for our industry, and in view of the pellet application as the solution for our waste they loom larger than ever. We are right back to "packaging and logistics." If you are fortunate enough to be within 30 to 40 miles of a pellet plant, the cost of moving non-baled stocks by compactor will probably be cost neutral when compared with landfilling. If you are 100 miles from the plant you must install a baler. You won't be able to make that move unless your by-product is loaded into 20-ton loads. This means a capital investment for many, which brings us back to the burning question, "Which is more important, sustainability or cost?"

After the pressure sensitive matrix and poly film waste streams are delivered they are chopped and mixed in preparation for pelletization. Most pellet manufacturers develop a recipe of feed stock mixtures.
All feed stocks are analyzed prior to processing. Stocks are tested for ash, sulfur, BTU/pound, chlorine, and metal/mineral content. This is to insure there is no arsenic, antimony, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, copper, fluorine, lead, mercury, nickel, silver, sodium, or zinc. Obviously this is critical and one of the reasons each supplier must submit samples for lab analysis. After approval the pellet process begins.

Biomass, cellulosic waste, generates 4,000 to 5,000 BTU/pound. Wood pellets and industrial pellets generate anywhere from 8,000 to 12,000 BTU/pound. Coal, depending on the type, will generate anywhere from 8,000 to 12,000 BTU/pound. I have seen 18,000 BTU/pound test results from high film content pellets. The bottom line is that industrial pellets are an excellent alternative to fossil fuel sources.
Last week I visited Heartland Label in Little Chute, WI, USA. Here's what they have to say about diverting their matrix waste from the landfill to a pellet manufacturer:

"Heartland is changing its business practices in order to become a "Zero Landfill" production operation in our Wisconsin manufacturing facility. This process involves sending our waste paper matrix to be combined with dried paper sludge, a waste product of paper manufacturing. The material is then added to the paper waste and converted into fuel pellets. These are then used as a fuel source to replace coal for commercial energy generation. These pellets burn much cleaner than coal.

"So, what does this mean to you? How does it affect your customers' demands for sustainability from you and your suppliers? By converting plant waste into fuel pellets, Heartland Label is saving about 1,400 tons of waste per year from ending up in the landfill.

"Through this process, approximately 1,000 tons of coal per year are saved from being used to generate electricity and just as importantly, not being stripped or mined from the earth."

Industrial pellets offer the generator of nonrecyclable by-products an opportunity to support a renewable fuel source. Landfills are graves and are not an option for sustainable metrics that will soon be required by all leading consumers of pressure sensitive labels.

Another Letter from the Earth.
Calvin Frost is chairman of Channeled Resources Group, headquartered in Chicago, the parent company of Maratech International and GMC Coating. His email address is cfrost@channeledresources.com.