Have Trailer-Will Move Biomass

Randy Hill believes he has the solution for transporting and drying large amounts of wet, woody biomass. The president of Advanced Trailer is working with the University of Idaho to evaluate the economic and environmental benefits of using his agricultural crop drying trailers to move biomass.
By Rona Johnson | June 03, 2009
One of the problems plaguing the ethanol industry when it comes to using biomass for fuel production is the efficient transport and storage of mountains of biomass. In situations where wood chips are used, the product may be handled several times before it reaches its final destination. That takes time and energy. Then there's the issue of drying wet biomass so it can produce the maximum amount of British thermal units, while releasing the least amount of carbon dioxide.

Randy Hill, president of APT Advanced Trailer and Equipment LP and the University of Idaho are betting they can solve this issue by using Advanced Trailer's agricultural drying trailers. Although prior testing has proven Hill's trailers can do the job, he wants to be able to show biomass processors the benefits of using his trailers. To do this, he is providing a grant and the use of a trailer to the university so it can be tested in a real-world situation.

After talking with the people at UI, Hill saw their interest as a perfect opportunity to develop the specifications he needed to get into the biomass industry. "We know it works, we know it removes moisture from product," Hill says. "The question has been, is it feasible cost-wise for energy production to remove that moisture? We started these discussions last summer with the University of Idaho and initially the university was interested in just purchasing the equipment and putting it into use. But I saw that there would be value in using the equipment and having some research from professors who say here's how you do it, here's how long you do it and here's what the benefits are."

UI took him up on his offer and has already developed plans to use the trailers. "The short-term goal is to look at how the technology of the trailer works," said Darin Saul, sustainability coordinator for UI. "The long-term goal is to integrate the trailer into a larger system that uses the waste heat from the steam plant to pre-dry the chips before they are burned." Initial testing will use natural gas to dry the chips, but the university believes that greater benefits will be realized when they are able to use their own waste heat. "My involvement in this is looking at how more effectively we can use biomass so we can further reduce our natural gas use on campus," Saul says. "We do that by better utilizing our biomass boiler."

Mike Lyngholm, steam plant manager at UI, says they are still trying to get the process established by working with the utility company and the natural gas supplier, but he hoped to be using the trailers by the first week in May. The university has a wood-fired boiler that they use to heat 80 percent of the buildings on campus, he says. The problem is that Lyngholm has to have a huge stockpile of chips to keep up with the demand for heat in the dead of winter. The outside of that pile gets wet and freezes. "Right now I have a big wind-row of wet half-frozen fuel from the pile that we threw off to one side as we dug in," he says. "I've looked at driers to install at the plant to dry everything but the energy needed to dry all the fuel would be rather expensive and the equipment is quite expensive."

Lyngholm thinks he may be able to solve his dilemma by using one or two of the Advanced Trailers agricultural drying trailers to haul and dry the wood chips in the winter and then park the trailers in the summer when they aren't needed.

Ultimately, Lyngholm wants to improve the efficiency of the boiler. "I've got some of the researchers here from the College of Natural Resources who are going to help me out and through the next 12 months run some test loads, put some probes in the loads and tweak the trailers for dying wood," he said. Those tests will determine how long the wood chips need to dry, what kind of temperatures are needed and if the process is efficient.

From Peanuts to Wood Chips
The idea to use his trailers to transport biomass wasn't just a shot in the dark. Hill has been in the trailer business since the mid-90s, first working for GE's Dallas Trailer Fleet Services (formerly Transport International Pool) and then forming Advanced Trailer, a semi-trailer storage rental and sales business. When he was working for GE, people would call asking for storage trailers, "but GE wasn't in that business and wasn't interested in that market," Hill says.

Storage trailers are outdated and retired 18-wheelers, which Hill buys and hauls to Texas where they are cleaned, painted and decaled. "I was the first guy in Dallas who really aggressively approached that market," he says. "I saw opportunity not only to build my own rental fleet but to sell to other companies in the rental business."

Shortly after he started his business, there was a change in the west Texas landscape that had a profound affect on his company. Peanut growers from central Texas started to see the area as a perfect place to grow their crop in a rotation with cotton. "The climate and the soil were perfect for growing peanuts and there was a good supply of water," Hill says. "West Texas became a new frontier for the peanut industry." There was only one hitch. The fields in central Texas were 65 to 300 acres, and in west Texas they were 1,000 to 2,000 acres. "The problem was that when they harvested those big fields they didn't have a piece of equipment that could handle it," Hill said.

At the time, peanuts were hauled out of the field using small wagons 16 to 20-feet-long pulled by pickups. The peanuts were loaded into the wagons in the field, brought back to a buying point where they were graded and tested for moisture content, which determined how long the peanuts would have to be dried before they could be stored in a warehouse.

The wagons had been used for 50 years but were quickly becoming obsolete in areas with 1,000-acre fields. It just so happened that farmers in Lubbock, Texas, were helping with a Texas Tech study on the feasibility of using the wagons. "They came up with a concept that we should be able to haul and dry peanuts in semi-trailers and 18-wheelers," Hill said.

Then in 1996, a farmer from west Texas bought 100 semi-trailers from Hill with the intention of using them to dry peanuts. That purchase opened up a whole new market for Advanced Trailers. The farmers would buy Hill's trailers and then convert them so they could be used with their stationary driers. "And it workeddrying the peanuts in the semis worked," he says. To accommodate the semi-trailers, the dryer maker manufactured a new dryer with a bigger motor, fan and heating element that could be used to push the hot air under the floor of the trailer, Hill said.

News of Advanced Trailers' peanut drying semi-trailers soon spread to the Southeast where 85 percent of the peanut crop is grown. Once it was determined that the trailers worked there, Hill was asked if he could develop a completed product so the growers didn't have to convert the trailers themselves. "I called one of my customers in west Texas and asked if I could look at a trailer," Hill said. "I brought in an engineer and we looked at the trailerswe looked at broken trailers, we looked at trailers that were operatingand we basically said here are the specific needs for the trailer, and we designed and developed one that would do the job." The first year he was in the peanut trailer converting business he sold 50 trailers. "The next year it was like we were the peanut trailer drying experts and these people started coming from Georgia. Our little market in west Texas had been going on for six or seven years, but now we were embarking on the big marketthe Southeast."

In 2002, Hill sold his rental business but retained the company name, the sales business and his intellectual property. "I could see that there were other opportunities for this trailer and we were just starting to embark on this becoming something very special," he says.

In 2004, Hill opened a plant in Georgia so he could build the trailers closer to the customers. The plant produced 360 trailers in its first year and 670 the second year.

Entering the Biomass Market
Because of the seasonality of the peanut industry, Hill decided it was time to look into some new markets. Two years ago he received a phone call from the Herty Advanced Materials Development Center in Savannah, Ga. They wanted to try drying wood chips in one of his trailers. That was just the spark that Hill needed. "We kept hearing discussion about the need to remove moisture from biomassthere is a big market for that so I started looking into it a little bit further," he says. "I started having a lot of discussions with the U.S. Department of Energy and different owners of biomass facilities around the country and we came up with the idea that this market could be 10 times the size of the peanut industry, especially with the popularity and the focus on carbon emissions and renewable alternative energy."

Hill also did some advertising, which led him to UI. "The university told me that if they can take that moisture content from 50 percent or 60 percent, which is common, to 30 percent their burning and Btus will be twice as efficient," he says. "They are burning roughly five trailer loads a day. If you take that and you cut off one trailer load a day, just one, that's a savings of $300,000 a year."

Hill was encouraged when he first arrived at UI and saw the system that the university had set up to fuel its boiler. "I drove to that facility and it was as if I was going back 12 years and driving into a peanut town because the facility, the equipment that they use in the process, the way that they unload the trailers everything was just like peanuts."

The testing at UI is important because it will determine whether it's economically feasible to use the trailers for biomass. "In peanuts, we are talking about a load of peanuts that's worth $35,000," he says. "A load of wood chips is worth about $1,000. You can't afford to spend $200 to $300 drying a load of wood chips like you can with peanuts."

Hill would also like to see the benefits of using waste heat to dry the chips, which they will be testing at UI. "When we use these trailers in big applications with 100 trailers in one facility and build a ducting system that takes dry, hot, free excess heat and we put it into a fan, we are using our exhaust to dry our product before it goes into a burner. That's what we see as the future, and the future is here today."

Rona Johnson is an editor at BBI International. Reach her at rjohnson@bbiinternational.com or (701) 738-4940.