Fuelling the farm with old bags

Alberta entrepreneur High temperature physics wrings every drop of diesel from used bags

Alberta entrepreneur Peter Brown thinks he knows how to wring enough money out of spent grain bags to offset the cost of gathering and transporting them for recycling.

Brown’s business, Durham Energy Recovery (DRE), is establishing a state-of-the-art pyrolysis facility that breaks down plastic material and returns it to its natural form — petroleum oil.

Gaseous vapors that won’t turn to oil are captured and used to provide heat to run the pyrolysis chamber. The small amount of solid material that won’t vaporize is knocked out and falls into the carbon black byproduct bin. It is sold to industry.

However, it’s the petroleum oil that Brown is after. The oil spends time in a vaporous state once it leaves the pyrolysis cylinder, allowing sulfur and other particulates to be knocked out. He said this makes for a clean, high quality diesel fuel that is free of particulate matter.

“It would be safe to say that (it has) very low sulfur and burns more efficiently,” he said.

“I feel that by selling diesel fuel back into the ag market, we basically complete our recycling circle. Grain bags come to us from farmers. We convert bags into diesel and sell it back to the farmers. That complete cycle is important to our philosophy of business.”

Brown is looking at building sites in Alberta and western Saskatchewan. The pyrolysis plant is shipped in modular form, which means it could be running within a year once a building site is finalized.

“We expect to be operational in 2015,” he said.

“Unfortunately, we opened the doors for collection too soon, thinking it would be a good way to get ready. We’re swamped with grain bags right now, so we’re asking people to hold off until the plant is built. But that tells us farmers obviously want to get rid of these bags in a way that doesn’t harm the environment.”

Prairie farmers bought mountains of grain bags last year to handle the larger than normal crop, further highlighting the issue of leftover plastic bags, some of which weigh 750 pounds.

A large bag can be cut up into smaller pieces for easier handling, but that wastes time and energy and doesn’t answer the environmental question of what to do with a large volume of recyclable plastic that is not being recycled.

The spent bag is easier to handle and transport for recycling if the grain extracting machine rolls it up as it moves along.

However, not all farmers have access to a roller, so a lot of bags are emptied with a grain vac, leaving the farmer with long ribbons of worthless heavy plastic that are often burned on the spot. Thousands more are burned at the landfill site because there is no system for gathering and processing.

Brown said Alberta farmers are trying to roll bags using portable bale making machines, and there are reports that some are rolling them by hand.

However, rolling them up is only the tip of the grain bag iceberg.

The logistics and economics of moving thousands of spent grain bags to a central processing or recycling site are significant, considering that empty grain bags weigh 400 to 750 pounds.

There are also the questions of having a loader on-site when the trucker arrives, needing someone to co-ordinate the entire process, finding backhauls headed in the right direction and paying the handling and transportation costs.

Brown said he’s working with provincial and municipal governments to establish collection hubs and a transportation system for the bags.

For more information, contact Brown at 587-775-9942 or visit www.deri.ca.

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