New biomass plant to help Curry County economy
Written by Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer   
January 15, 2013 10:11 pm

The mothballed remains of a Canadian biomass energy facility have fueled the fires of four Oregon men who plan to reconstruct it and work with local timber companies to kickstart Curry County’s economy.

It’s part of an economic development plan that could bring together those who work in the forest and energy companies and reduce slash produced when trees are cut – and put people to work.

Pyrovac biomass vacuum pyrolysis technology is a big phrase for the actual work involved, Smith said.

Slash and other low-grade timber is chipped and laid out on a track and heated, without oxygen so the chips won’t burn, to 950 degrees. Some byproduct is char, the blackened remains of the chips, that can be used in agriculture as a medium to which pesticides and fertilizers can adhere, thus reducing chemical leaching and the overall use of those products.

Three “volatiles” are cooled and condensed as a byproduct of the chips, including a viscous tar-like substance that can be used as furnace fuel or in asphalt instead of petroleum, thus reducing chemical runoff into rivers and salmon habitat.

Scientists are few steps away from taking that product and making it into shipping fuel.

Another volatile is a light oil that can be used to extract heavy metals from soil and air; and wood vinegar, more commonly known in the barbecue world as “Liquid Smoke.”

“We’ve bootstrapped this company from literally nothing, to the point of what you see here,” Three Dimensional Timberlands partner Paul Smith told a group of about 15 people Monday afternoon. They sidled up alongside huge tubes, engines and giant cogs to try and imagine what the finished project will look like.

Smith and his partners, Chip Weinert, Tim Tuttle and Jim Boettcher, have been working for more than a year with consultants, forestry experts and others to make the plant become reality.

Currently, the 50-foot-tall kiln and all its assorted attachments are in storage north of Gold Beach. But once they’re up and running again, they’ll transform wood chips into bio-char and an array of oils that can be used in numerous industries worldwide.

It will involve a bit of coordination between those who mill trees and the industries to be served, but the quartet are also working with local and state politicians, the state forestry department and others to do so.

The plant will process each batch on conveyor belts in 12 minutes, pumping through three tons an hour, making it the largest operation of its kind in North America.

“This is an emerging technology,” said Marcus Kaufman, biomass resource specialist with the Oregon Department of Forestry. “But it’s very small. We’re not sitting on the sidelines and cheering; we’re saying, ‘What can we do to grow these markets?’ We aren’t out here trying to do it by ourselves.”

The entire operation will cost about $8 million, but once operating, will bring a 20 percent return, Smith estimates. They are seeking out grant funding and private investors to secure funds. Smith said it’s been tough trying to sell Americans on the technology – and he’d prefer to stay stateside – but he’ll go overseas, if necessary.

The next phase will involve building a 10,000-square-foot facility, acquire a chipper and equipment that removes logs from trucks. They want to have that money, which includes $1.3 million in a contingency fund, before they start throwing chips to the heat.

“We’ve seen other companies try to build themselves up, only to come crashing down at the last minute due to a lack of carbohydrates,” Smith said. “Money is carbohydrates in this industry.”

The technology is on the forefront of greenhouse gas reduction, as well. More than 8 billion tons of biomass is simply burned every year; in the U.S., almost a billion tons of biomass is left to rot in fields and forests, Weinert said.

The men involved are eyeing that biomass, and, noted County Commissioner Dave Itzen, would in turn reduce the volume of slash in the forest – and the chance a catastrophic wildfire.

The technology can also go international, as it works with anything organic. Macadamia nuts in Hawaii, or rice husks in the Sacramento River Delta are prime examples, Weinert said.

“Wood chips are what we have,” Smith said.

 Technology is also underway to figure out how to cleanly burn biomass to create electrical or vehicular energy.

When the area north of Gold Beach is eventually included in the Sudden Oak Death quarantine area – as all those present at the meeting believe – they will be able to process that wood, too. Areas throughout the United States affected by Swiss needle cast or pine bark beetles could use the technology to rid their forests of trees killed by invasive insects and fungi.

“We need to change the mindset, nationally,” said Curry County Commissioner David Brock Smith. “If we can fertilize the Great Plains region with this rather than use man-made fertilizer, it’d take all the toxicity out of the Mississippi, the gulf. It might be hard to get there from here, but it’s always a dream.”