Betting on Biobricks

Tom Engel traveled halfway across the world in search of a way to make clean, dependable, renewable energy and brought back BioBricks. With these compact, environmentally friendly, biomass-based briquettes he aims to ease the pain that people experience when paying their heating bills.
By Suzanne H. Schmidt
Many people feel a familiar financial pinch in the winter when the temperature drops and heating fuel prices rise. In 2005, Tom Engel began to look for a more cost-effective method to heat homes and businesses. His search ended when he found the RUF (pronounced roof) briquetting machine. "I traveled all over Europe to see what they were doing in biomass," says Engel, owner of BioPellet Heating Systems LLC in East Hampton, Conn. Before settling on the RUF briquetter, he looked at different kinds of extrusion and mechanical systems. The mechanical presses create a dense brick-like product made of many layers. Those layers don't maintain a uniform shape as they tend to accordion during burning. He also wasn't impressed with extrusion presses, which screw material into a compact shape resembling a sausage. These machines are subject to high operational and energy costs. In the end, he chose the RUF briquetter, a hydraulic machine that uses 150 tons of force to make consistently sized briquettes. The RUF briquetter makes a complete rectangular briquette with each stroke of the machine. The result is a homogenous identical briquette each time. This sort of briquette lends itself to automated packaging and the shape is perfect for wood stoves.

BioBrick Basics
The RUF briquetter makes Engel's patented BioBricks from straw, wood, grass and other waste products. "It is so easy because it's a hydraulic machine," Engel says. "It uses 150 tons of force on the material." The machine also does much of its work without supervision. Engel says he loads the briquetter with sawdust in the evening, it runs all night unattended and in the morning the bricks are ready to be packaged.

Engel sells the BioBricks to businesses and homeowners, who are looking for cheaper, cleaner heat sources. He also sells the RUF briquette systems. Selling the briquetter machine involves helping potential customers look for practical and cost-effective feedstocks. "Really, you can take most organic material and make a briquette," Engel says. "For instance, I have a company in Kansas that is putting together a business plan to use switchgrass. I also have a company with a wood supply that just wants a briquetter to sell briquettes to the people in the community around them." Engel is also working with a company in the sugarcane industry that wants to make briquettes out of the bagasse. The company plans to offset energy costs by using the bagasse briquettes to power the boiler in their factory.

One of the selling points that Engel stresses is the burnability of the bricks, which is determined by several factors. "The key is to get the moisture content below 8 percent [in the sawdust] for industrial briquettes, and for home heating you want the moisture in the briquettes below 10 percent," Engel says. Although he often uses the term sawdust when he refers to the material that is used to make the bricks, this material can be as fine as dust or even courser.

Many manufacturing companies produce RUF briquettes using the waste that they generate. Thus they are able to reuse and recycle that waste into a profit center. Because the RUF briquetter can use so many different types of organic material, Engel is able to market it anywhere in the country. He sold one RUF machine to Sawmill Bill Lumber Co., a flooring and paneling mill in Interlochen, Mich. The owner, Bill Reitz, bought the briquetter to reduce wood waste. "Basically the sawdust comes off our plant and right into the RUF unit," Reitz says. Sawmill Bill produces approximately three to five tons of briquettes daily from the waste. "We've been operating for about 1� years and I've had very few problems with the machine," Reitz says. "It makes a consistent product."

Better For the Wallet and the Planet
RUF briquettes are designed to improve the efficiency of a wood stove. "It changes the way a wood stove burns," Engel says. The briquettes make wood stoves more efficient because they burn longer, cleaner and more completely. The bricks stack close together, the moisture content is low and the material is dense so it burns consistently. "I regularly get a 12-hour burn with my wood stove at home," Engel says. "I load it up in the morning, start the fire, close the door and go to work. When I come home no one has touched the fire and I push the coals back, load it up again and let it burn for another 12 hours. I can do that for two weeks without emptying the ash."

When most material is burned, ash and other waste products are left behind. Engel says that certain feedstocks such as straw can leave more waste because of their mineral content. The BioBricks, however, can provide an efficient burn despite the feedstock that's used to make them. "That's the beauty of it," he says. "You can turn a variety of material into a uniform RUF briquette with a certain density and moisture content. You can turn a variety of materials into one kind of fuel. Because of that a lot more of it burns inside the combustion chamber and the only thing left is the ash," Engel says.

This diagram shows the efficiency of the BioBricks and its superior burnability in comparison with cord wood.

The BioBricks are also cheaper when compared with the cost of fuel oil. The BioBricks cost roughly $17 dollars per million British thermal units (Btus), compared with fuel oil, which costs nearly $33 dollars per million Btus. Btus are also a concern for the U.S. EPA. Engel says the RUF Briquettes produce 7,800 Btus per pound and produce less than half the particulate emissions of cord wood. And, emissions from the briquettes are carbon neutral. "It doesn't add new carbon into the atmosphere and it doesn't take any away," Engel says.

Compared with burning wood, it takes fewer BioBricks to get the same amount of heat. One pound of RUF briquettes is the same as 1.7 pounds of cord wood when comparing how much heat you get, Engel says. "Cord wood is in big pieces, little pieces, wet pieces and dry pieces, and frankly, not all of it burns at the same temperature nor releases the same amount of heat," he says. "Instead of heat going into the house, it's going out the chimney as smoke or is left in the firebox as unburned carbon." Whereas with the briquettes much more of the organic material is burned up and the heat produced stays in the house.

Because the biomass briquette market was fairly new to the United States when Engel first started his business, he had to be creative to make customers aware of the benefits. He started the marketing process by importing 20 tons of briquettes from Poland and giving those briquettes away to area businesses. Engel also has a demonstration site where he can prove the benefits of recycling waste products. "I usually make a sale every time because I show that it can work," he says. "I get calls from across North America every day about starting RUF briquetting plants-I've sold 32 machines in the past few years," he says.

Although the bricks are compact and small, they can take a big chunk out of monthly heating bills and reduce carbon emissions. Recycling waste wood and other feedstocks also helps the nation become less dependent on foreign oil. "I see nothing but growth ahead of us," Engel says. "Right now, there are roughly 300,000 tons anually of RUF briquettes being produced in Europe and I see it taking a similar path here."

Suzanne H. Schmidt is a Biomass Magazine staff writer. Reach her at [email protected] or (701) 738-4972.