February 15, 2004 | General

Biomass Pellets Provide Low-Cost System For Home Heating

Dan Emerson
BioCycle February 2004, Vol. 45, No. 2, p. 56
There was great excitement when Robert Walker and his wife, JoAnn moved into their new, 12,000-square foot home on a lake in Ramsey, Minnesota. But they weren’t ready for the “excitement” they experienced a few months later in the form of a $1,700 monthly heating bill. The whopping bill served as the catalyst for a new venture by Walker, an experienced inventor and entrepreneur who founded one of Minnesota’s most successful consumer product companies — air-bed maker Select Comfort Corp. His quest for a cheaper heat source led Walker to pursue a more efficient biomass-burning stove, and found a new company. Walker discussed his biomass venture – Bixby Energy Systems – as one of the featured speakers at the third annual BioCycle Conference on Renewable Energy from Organics Recycling, held last November in Minneapolis.
A rural North Dakota native who was familiar with the corn-burning stoves used to heat farmhouses, Bob Walker saw biomass as the alternative energy source with the greatest potential for reducing energy costs. Bixby’s MaxYield system is designed to input high levels of oxygen, for a 99.7 percent combustion efficiency, compared to 48 to 52 percent for the earlier generation of corn-burning stoves. With the ignition temperature of various types of biomass ranging from 300 to 700 degrees Fahrenheit, Bixby’s engineers developed a stove that would maintain a temperature in the 400 to 450 degree range for maximum efficiency and performance.
Bixby’s chief technology officer, Marion Mast, spent about 20 years working on the concept. Based in the village of Bixby, Minnesota, Mast was using a prototype to heat a 6,000-square foot building when he approached Walker with his ideas. In 2001, they founded Bixby Energy Systems.
Walker says one reason that biomass had not been exploited more efficiently previously is that research was conducted “from the wrong end of the bottle” – much of it done by local or regional ag-related organizations searching for a way to dispose of waste, rather than focusing on biomass as a cost-effective, nationwide source of heating fuel.
The firm has also developed a more efficient, manufactured biomass fuel source: Pellets covered with an all-natural, beeswax-based coating, which can be made from a wide range of agricultural waste products. In addition to corn cobs and other Midwestern ag waste, the pellets can also be made from a wide variety of discarded plant matter from around the country: grape waste from California, almond shells, cotton gin and tobacco waste from the southern states….and more. The coating eliminates two problems involved in transporting and storing biomass; it prevents moisture and infestation by insects and rodents. Showing the marketing savvy that helped him build Select Comfort, Walker has trademarked the blue-colored wax coating to help build a brand identity. This spring he plans to open a pelletizing plant in southern Minnesota.
The previously unwanted plant matter represents a “huge opportunity” for reducing dependence on foreign oil, Walker contends, noting that the U.S. has been called “the Saudi Arabia of biomass. If we’re successful in developing this technology, we could become the Microsoft of biomass. It has the potential to achieve all of our goals: dramatically reduce our oil dependence, and create 40,000 jobs in rural America.”
Early on, Walker also realized that previous attempts to promote alternative energy solutions lacked efficient, large-scale delivery systems. To begin addressing that piece of the puzzle, Walker has agreed to acquire Stepsaver, Inc., a Wood Lake, Minnesota-based firm which delivers water-softener salt pellets to homes in a number of Midwestern and Western states. Piggybacking on Stepsaver’s existing delivery infrastructure, and partnering with other firms that deliver propane and fuel oil to homes in rural areas, will be an efficient way to both deliver the heating pellets and remove the ash left behind, Walker says. Stepsaver’s trucks are equipped with 220-foot long hoses used to deliver product, which can also be used to remove ash.
Selling to “early adapters,” Walker says the Bixby plant in Rogers already has orders for 6,000 of the biomass home furnaces, from about 120 wood-stove and fireplace dealers around the country. Customer surveys of buyers of the $2,999 stove indicate about 30 percent consider themselves “early adapters” of new technology, and another 30 percent are farmers or neighbors of farmers. “We’ve barely tapped the market,” says Walker. By spring, he plans to move to a new 75,000 sq. ft. factory and office facility that will produce up to 100 units per day. Raising capital from private sources to finance his vision has not been difficult, Walker says. “When people see what we’re doing, they get it and believe it.”
Another indicator of the market for biomass stoves: the world’s largest corn-stove manufacturer, Hutchinson,
Minnesota-based American Energy Systems, recently announced it is tripling production capacity and launching distribution in Europe. According to industry data, in 2001, sales of corn burning appliances were up 500 percent. In 2002, about 35 manufacturers introduced their own versions.
Later this year, Walker plans to begin production of a home central heating system. Using biomass to heat homes is only the first step in Bixby’s business plan; within three or four years, Walker also hopes to develop “small, home biomass plants that will also generate electricity and, eventually, large, centralized generating plants. By fall, 2004, Walker plans to have a residential, central heating system on the market.” We can build just about any size furnace; it’s a highly scalable technology, that can also operate on propane or natural gas.
“Building a home furnace to prove the efficacy of the concept was one of the most difficult things to accomplish. “When you build a stove for the home, it has to be much quieter than an industrial furnace system; it must generate a lot of heat in a compact unit, and have an attractive design.”
Along with corn, another biomass fuel widely used to heat homes in some areas is wooden pellets made from lumbermill waste. In recent years, more efficient mills have led to a shortage of the material for heating. The amount of waste wood available from the mills has been reduced from an average of three to four percent, to just two percent, according to Walker.
Walker has had discussions with several foreign countries that are interested in acquiring Bixby’s technology, including China. “We’re evaluating whether that would be prudent to take on now,” he says. “We’ve got so many things happening as a company we need to decide where to put our focus.” He has also been contacted by interests in Sweden, which consumes more than 1 million tons of wood pellets annually. “They’ve been importing wood pellets by the shipload from New Zealand. We can make simulated wood pellets out of certain corn fibers,” he notes.
Alan Doering, a technical services specialist with Minnesota Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI), helped Walker’s firm characterize various ag biomass sources in regard to their BTU value, sulfur content, moisture, density, and quantity of ash produced. Multiple combinations of ag coproducts were pelleted and tested to identify optimal combinations with desired characteristics. Doering thinks Walker is on the right track, citing his ability to deliver a “consistent quality” fuel product, and his emphasis on making biomass energy user-friendly. “In a time when fossil fuel use continues to grow and there is continued demand for electricity, biomass is going to become the practical and affordable solution within the next five to 15 years,” Doering predicts. “Bixby Energy should be one of the leading companies to accomplish that.”

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