Pellet mill processes the chip it needs with grinder

By |  October 23, 2013

The quiet, neighborly town of Strong, Maine, is situated about 50 miles northwest of Augusta. Other than Strong’s residents, most Northeasterners aren’t familiar with this simple place – unless, of course, you happen to be a logging and timber trivia expert.

The 3680 Beast at Geneva Wood Fuels has the capability to process material 35 in. in diameter.

The 3680 Beast at Geneva Wood Fuels has the capability to process material 35 in. in diameter.

Such experts recognize Strong as the toothpick capital of the world. At least it once was, as Charles Forster was one entrepreneur who was drawn to Strong in the mid-1800s, when he established a toothpick mill that would eventually take Forster Manufacturing and the small town to the top of the global toothpick market.

Overseas competition caught up with Maine’s toothpick industry in the late 20th century, and the Forster mill in Strong – the first and last toothpick plant in the state – finally closed in 2002. But it didn’t stay closed for long.

New opportunities
Jeff and Lucinda Allen, who purchased the mill when it closed, discovered an opportunity to enter the wood pellet market in 2008.

“We sold the mill to a gentleman from Chicago who was going to sell wood pellets,” Jeff says. “He already had a business model, so basically we brought in equipment and built it. That’s the way she stands today.”

Jeff and Lucinda stayed with the plant as managers while new owner Jonathan Kahn invested about $13 million into the old factory, turning it into a state-of-the-art pellet mill that went online in 2009. On the outside, the mill looks the way it has over the last 60 years. But inside, three Andritz Sprout pelletizers, a high-efficiency TSI dryer, an Andritz Sprout stationary hammermill, banks of electronics and advanced computer monitoring systems work together to convert wood chips into pellets.

The pellets are then sent to an automated assembly line where they’re packaged into 40-lb. bags, stacked on pallets and taken to the loading dock via forklift. Crews load as many as 10 to 12 trucks each day, shipping pellets to customers and retail outlets throughout New England.

“Most of the pellet activity is here in the Northeast,” Lucinda says. “That’s where most people want them so our pellets go to Massachusetts, New York, down into Rhode Island and Connecticut. That’s about the furthest our pellets go.”

The starting point
This is the process on the inside, but before the pelletizers or assembly lines get a crack at their duties, round wood logs delivered to the plant must be debarked and converted into chips. To make a quality pellet while getting the best efficiency and throughput from the mill, the team at Geneva Wood Fuels uses a very specific wood chip.

Getting the precise chip in the first place wasn’t easy, Jeff says. Geneva Wood Fuels tried an assortment of machines, but none of the chippers or grinders it tested were capable of producing the right size and style of chip that worked best in the mill. But Kahn discovered a unique machine, the 3680 Beast from Bandit Industries at a trade show and settled on it after doing research.

“Sizing is everything when you put it into the mill,” Jeff says. “You also have to be careful that you don’t hurt the wood fibers, because they hold the pellet together. You can’t just beat it out; you really have to cut it because grinding just doesn’t work. This all affects how your dryer feeds, because if it balls up when you put it in the dryer, it’s the wrong product and it won’t come out.”

According to Bandit, Beast horizontal grinders use a cutter mill designed to process material

Material is sourced primarily within a 50-mile radius of the mill. Once processed into pellets, Geneva Wood Fuels packages them and ships them to customers throughout New England.

Material is sourced primarily within a 50-mile radius of the mill. Once processed into pellets, Geneva Wood Fuels packages them and ships them to customers throughout New England.

with more of a cutting action. Geneva Wood Fuels took the development a step further on its 3680, using Bandit’s chipper knife setup with a 4-in. screen to get the specific product.

The company started with a 540-hp Cat C15 version of the 3680, making the most of its 35-in.-x-60-in. mill opening to process just about anything fed into it. The C15-powered Beast worked eight to nine hours a day for the better part of a year, accumulating close to 2,000 hours before Jeff decided an upgrade was in order.

The company stayed with the 3680 but switched to a newer model, running a 700-hp Cat C18. Since August 2011 it’s been working at a similar pace as Geneva Wood Fuels’ previous Beast. But, according to Jeff, there’s more room to run.

“Right now, the pellet mill is nowhere near capacity,” he says. “For power reasons we’re only running off-peak, nine hours a night. We can save $25,000 a month in power costs because it’s so much cheaper to run at night. We can do about 4,000 to 5,000 tons a month on this off-peak deal, but as the demand increases we’ll go away from that.

“There’s a Catch 22 so to speak, because once we cross that bridge we’re going to lose the $25,000 savings right away, so we’ll need to sell quite a bit extra to make the added production worth it. We could probably make 7,000 or 8,000 tons a month. The Beast would be working overtime out there.”

Some might say their Beast is already working overtime, but in addition to being the only machine able to produce the chip Geneva Wood Fuels needs, it’s also proven to be a machine that can take the daily use with very little drama.

“If that machine doesn’t run, the plant doesn’t run, and I wouldn’t have bought another one if I wasn’t happy with it,” Jeff says. “You have to keep an eye on any kind of machine like this, and there’s a learning curve too. You have to know what to keep an eye on.

Vision for the future
Additional overtime might come sooner rather than later for Geneva Woods Fuels’ crews, because global demand for wood pellets is rising thanks to skyrocketing use throughout Europe, where federally established renewable energy requirements are more aggressive. Geneva Wood Fuels is prepared to handle increasing demand and sees upgrading to a 4680 Beast with 1,200 hp as his ultimate goal.

Specifically, Jeff envisions a 4680 running back-to-back with the operation’s drum debarker, taking material directly from the machine instead of using a separate loader to feed the Beast.

“We may have the 4680 here within the next few years,” Jeff says. “It sounds crazy, but the fuel economy actually got better when we went with the bigger engine on the 3680. We’re getting more tons per hp out of this one – about a 15 to 20 percent improvement over the C15. The power curve doesn’t die off as fast with the bigger engine; it spends less time processing more material.”

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