Turning Over a New Leaf

Biomass/coal blended pellets might be on the horizon
By Anna Austin | April 03, 2012

An Illinois company that has been working under the radar for the past few years on new fuels and new ways to transport them says it is beginning to see results. It is planning to begin construction of its first fuel pellet plant within the next couple of months.

A New Leaf Energy partner Bob McElwee says the plant will be located in the Midwest on a major river, and will manufacture wood pellets for shipment to Europe, as well as a blend of coal fines and biomass. “I have three million tons of coal fines available within five miles of our plant, which load product directly onto barges at the site,” McElwee says.

The blended fuel will feature a binder, but McElwee says he’s working with research groups to determine the final additive. Currently he is a partner in Nu Materials, which has developed an organic binder called Thermoresin. It is made from proteins and carbohydrates of renewable biomass and allows the blending of coal and biomass materials into one pellet product.

McElwee says he will be working with other companies as well to get the best additive or binder for each client.

The Midwest pilot plant will be the prototype for upcoming plants in other parts of North America, according to McElwee. These plants will not only offer the biomass pellets and coal blends, but also baled chips. “This new baled product will be available through our Southern U.S. locations as we begin to ship our orders within months,” he says. “The wood chip product will be available in two-ton bales that are sanitized and wrapped in plastic.”

McElwee says the planned plants will have a combined capacity exceeding 2 million tons per year, and A New Leaf is opening up new long-term supply agreements each week. Because the company will ship from multiple points in North America and the bales have a favorable density, he expects the shipping costs to be much less than similar bulk products.  “Our next operation in the Southern U.S. is slated to start shipping 350,000 tons in year one, but we have not yet committed the product to a specific customer,” he says.

The team from A New Leaf Energy will be working with utility customers globally in the coming months on additional agreements for all the products, McElwee adds. He says the ability to produce multiple products using the same skilled labor, and being located near the raw material while at or near major ports, has created a value and price difference for the company’s products.

—Anna Austin