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Wood pellets sustain the environment and B.C. engineers

 "The world production of wood pellets in 2010 will approach 14 million metric tonnes and the projections are that by 2020, the figure for production and consumption will rise to between 50-60 million tons, " says engineer Staffan Melin,...


 “The world production of wood pellets in 2010 will approach 14 million metric tonnes and the projections are that by 2020, the figure for production and consumption will rise to between 50-60 million tons, ” says engineer Staffan Melin, research director of the Wood Pellet Association of Canada.

Melin says B.C.’s rise on the world market has been rapid, going from a mere 64,000 tonnes in 1996 to 1.2-1.4 million tonnes in 2010. There are 10 plants on stream and more planned in 2011. 

The growth in the wood pellet industry has been driven by reducing greenhouse gases, as the pellets are an alternative to fossil fuels.

British Columbia’s abundance of mountain pine beetle wood (i.e. wood from trees infested with the beetle and therefore has limited use in construction) has fuelled Canada’s reputation as a high-quality supplier. The industry growth has, of course, been a boon to engineering and research firms involved in the industry.

Melin, who is faculty member of the University of B.C.’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, says there are currently 21 researchers involved in the Biomass and Bioenergy Research Group dedicated to pellet technology research. “It is one of the leading North American research groups in this area,” says Melin. The researchers are developing new technologies for improving the quality of pellets (torrefaction, explosion pulping, steam drying and densification, and safe handling of pellets during transportation). The first Material Safety Data Sheet, which is becoming a world standard, was a result of the group’s work. 

Local firms have gone through their own learning curves benefiting from research along the way. They include companies such as Stolberg Engineering (plant design), Cogent Industrial Technologies (designing control systems for pellet mills), Westmar Engineering now known as WorleyParsons Ltd. (logistic systems for loading/discharge of bulk transport and storage of pellets), NORAM Engineering (involved with new technologies for pellet making ), and entrepreneurial engineering companies looking at new pellet uses. Melin’s own company, Delta Research Group, consults on safety issues such as off-gassing and dust explosion.

Stolberg Engineering, with deep roots in the forest industry, niched solidly into designing pellet plants starting in 2000. “It’s been a learning curve,” says president John Ingram, P.Eng. The work helped fill a void as B.C.’s forest industry saw a significant slowdown in construction of new lumber breakdown mills. “From an engineering perspective, a lot of our material handling experience from the sawmill industry was directly transferable to the pellet industry. On the plant process side, we worked closely with the client and the major equipment vendors.”

The Stolberg projects started with them providing the electrical design for Premium Pellet in Vanderhoof, then moved to a complete mill design for Canfor’s Houston plant in 2006, and a design for Pacific BioEnergy’s $25 million plant expansion in 2009. Stolberg is currently finishing the design for Pinnacle Pellet’s latest $30 million plant in Burns Lake “There are more on the boards,” says Ingram. For Stolberg and other firms, the expansion of the industry is a bright light on an otherwise doom and gloom forest horizon. “It has helped to keep us going.”

As Pacific BioEnergy finishes off its Prince George expansion (making it the largest pellet producing plant in Canada with an annual output of 350,000 tons), the company is moving forward with another planned project in Chetwyn. The 250,000-tonne plant should begin construction in spring 2011. Pacific BioEnergy vice-president of engineering Dennis Wilson said other projects are under consideration for Kitwanga and Nazko.

 “Our market is exclusively the European power utilities,” says Wilson, P.Eng., where the pellets offset coal burning power generators. “Every tonne of pellets replaces one tonne of coal and one of coal is equal to 1.78 tonnes of carbon dioxide.”

“Right now we are trying to get pellets into the Alberta market,” Wilson says, since it is a closer market and “Alberta has a problem with greenhouse gas emissions” and is an extensive coal user. “We are trying to find industry partners,” he says, as well as garner support from Alberta’s government.