Processing Biomass for Fuel

by Liz Scoville

Chip Energy is putting the finishing touches on a facility to process wood waste into renewable energy.

In 2008, Paul Wever was completing the development of a biomass furnace that he hoped would change the game in renewable energy. Its projected success, however, relied on a future of high natural gas prices, and by the time it was ready for production, the price of natural gas had fallen dramatically… along with the prospects of such alternative energy sources.

But Wever, president of Chip Energy in Goodfield, Illinois, did not give up. While the company is still producing the biomass furnace, it now has its sights set on a bigger aim: a resource recovery facility that would collect and process discarded wood and other biological waste into mulch, fuel and other usable products—a first-of-its-kind facility built entirely out of recycled materials.

Building the Bio-Economy
In the fall of 2005, Hurricane Katrina had just devastated the Gulf Coast, and Wever wanted to lend a hand in the recovery. In his research on where to start, he came across something interesting: an abundance of salvageable wood debris that had accumulated in the aftermath of the disaster. He realized that if he could devise a way to use that wood as fuel, it could be a win-win, providing a new source of energy with reduced emissions, while cleaning up debris and saving it from the landfill.

With that in mind, Wever obtained a grant from the U.S. Small Business Innovation Research program to develop and produce a biomass furnace, using wood and other biological waste for fuel. But the final prototype, though ready for production, was a commercial failure due to the falling price of natural gas and the uncertainty of a national economy reeling from recession.

That’s when Wever started digging a little deeper into the bio-economy, an industry sector focused on using renewable biological resources to produce food, energy and other materials. He found a lot of businesses were disposing of wood resources and unneeded building materials, creating a vast amount of biomass waste: five million pounds per day in Illinois alone, he says. “[My clients] end up with crates and pallets and items made out of wood that, for lack of choice, end up in the landfill,” Wever explains. “I found that if I was able to give those clients a choice, they would choose the more environmentally friendly [option].”

In 2012, he received a new grant through the Illinois Renewable Energy Business Development Program to build a biomass conversion facility, which would process and convert this material into a viable energy resource. He hoped it would increase awareness of the potential for reusing biomass materials in a world more focused than ever on energy efficiency and environmental impact. “As a society, we’re trying to put things into place to create the bio-economy,” Wever explains. “I made the decision that Chip Energy will be a part of that.”

Recycled from the Ground Up
Wever has spent the last several years utilizing this grant, as well as his own resources, to design and build a facility that could handle a constant stream of materials being taken in, processed and exported. The first question: how to construct a facility that would be both energy-efficient and economically viable? Wever’s solution was to use intermodal shipping containers: large, durable vessels with standardized dimensions, designed for flexible use across various modes of transportation. “We have an enormous amount of shipping containers that need to be recycled,” he explains. “And that makes that, as a commodity and a building material, very inexpensive.”

And Wever didn’t stop at utilizing discarded shipping containers to process biomass waste—he decided to construct the entire facility out of them. Using 20-foot, 40-foot and 53-foot containers in various combinations, he was able to design a structure that served two functions: storing biomass materials and processing them within the facility—a design that makes it, Wever says with embellishment, “the most efficient [resource recovery] facility in the world.”

The Chip Energy Biomass Conversion Facility is now under construction in Goodfield, where stacks of wood pallets and a mountain of biomass material lie nearby, ready to be converted into a “value-added product”—such as wood pellets, biomass briquettes or mulch. Inside the facility, intermodal shipping containers have been modified into rooms and storage spaces, comprising six floors—laid out vertically to reduce its footprint. Each floor has a distinct function in the conversion process (such as input, manufacturing and packaging), which ultimately leads to a hopper that pushes the recycled product out into a truck, ready for transport. Two sides of the building are comprised of 13 shipping containers standing on end, creating 26 built-in silos for handling several varieties of bulk material at once. While the material is stored, it is well-ventilated via six industrial fans and the facility’s “breathable” fabric dome roof.

The entire structure is welded together without nuts or bolts, which Wever contends is a big part of its stability and strength. “You have to remember that containers are designed to have eight other containers stacked on top of them, filled with 60,000 pounds,” he explains. “And the one on the bottom has to support all of them. So [the building is] extremely structurally sound. If there’s a tornado, I’m running over here.”

For Future Generations
The biomass conversion facility is expected to be fully operational by next June, Wever says. As finishing touches are made to the building and relationships formed with interested clients, he has high hopes for Chip Energy’s new venture. “We believe it will be an asset to the community in creating jobs,” he says. “My goal is to turn it into a $100- to $200-million company in the next 10 to 15 years.”

As he chases his lofty ambitions, Wever stays grounded by remembering what matters most. “I have a four-year-old granddaughter, and everything I do is for her,” he claims. “A lot of the energy, the drive that I put into what I’m doing is based on what I want her to tell her generation, or her kids, about her grandpa. It takes a lot of drive to do the unique things, and to keep going. That’s what drives me.” iBi

For more information, visit chipenergy.com.

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