Rentech Fuels ready to commission Atikokan wood pellet plant

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The workers at Rentech’s Atikokan wood pellet facility

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Rentech Fuels ready to commission Atikokan wood pellet plant

The staff is in place, an intense series of training sessions are mostly complete, and the production facility is just about ready.

Rentech’s Atikokan pellet plant will be commissioned for production within the month, said site manager Bill Carson on Friday. Contractors were still busy at the site, putting final touches on the bucket elevator and the heating system for the dryer, but the plant has already completed a successful test run.

The plant’s wood pellet transfer system has been busy since May – only operating in reverse. Rentech shipped in pellets by rail, then loaded them onto trucks for delivery to OPG’s Atikokan Generating Station, to meet its contracts with that company. That took a bit of creativity, because the plant is designed to load, rather than unload, rail cars.

All the pellets for the OPG biomass facility – about 45 thousand tonnes per year from Rentech – will  be delivered by truck. OPG determined that was the best way to set up its pellet handling facility. Rentech’s Atikokan and Wawa plants will also produce pellets for Drax, a U.K. power producer; those will be shipped by rail to Quebec City, and then by sea to the U.K. (Resolute will also provide 45,000 tonnes of pellets annually to OPG, from its new Thunder Bay plant.)

The heart of the operation here is three pellet presses that will take wood – reduced to sawdust size – and turn it into pellets. Each of the presses is designed to produce about four tonnes of pellets per hour, so the plant will have a capacity of 12 tonnes per hour, or about 100,000 tonnes per year.

The wood yard – which operation has been contracted to Rainy Lake Tribal Contracting – already has a broad mix of woods, in varying states, from sawdust to full size logs. The wood is debarked (the bark fuels the heating system for the sawdust drier), and then chipped and screened. Small particles go right into the pellet production line, while the larger pieces go to a couple of hammer mills that will reduce the wood to the appropriate size. Everything is then dried; Brad Sampson estimated the driers can produce up to 18 tonnes of dried wood per hour.

Once pressed into pellets, the product is cooled and is then ready for shipping. Rentech has installed a pair of large silos for storing production, but the best case scenario has storage kept to a minimum.

Trucks, all bound for the OPG plant here, will load right inside the plant on one side of the production line. On the other, pellets will be loaded into rail cars. Rentech has leased 260 cars for use by the Atikokan and Wawa plants, so the plant shouldn’t have one of the chronic bottlenecks its predecessors at the site faced: a shortage of train cars for shipping. (When we visited Friday, there were at least six cars ready for loading.)

For six of the staff, the reliance on rail shipping has meant some special training. Sampson, Matt Ogden, Corey Lavallee, Roy Brouwer, Darren Sampson and Richard Bowes have been licenced to run a locomotive. CN and Canadian Heartland Rail put them through a rigourous six-week program to prepare them to operate the locomotive, which the company bought from CN. They won’t be going far – just from the Rentech yard to the Atikokan station – but they still need to be intimately familiar with the rules of the rail to do that safely.

Six of the workers at the plant here also got to taste southern hospitality, and heat, training at an AgriRecycle wood pellet plant in Alabama earlier this year. That relationship with the Alabama plant will continue later this summer, when some of their workers come here to help get the plant into full production.

All of the workers here have just completed two weeks of core skill training, everything from First Aid to industrial safety and workplace harassment. Safety North Ontario, Intola Safety, and the Rainy River District Shelter of Hope delivered the training.

“It was really excellent, great for getting everyone on the same page for safety,” said Wayne Miller. A sawmill veteran, he’s gotten some of that training on a “hit and miss” basis over the years, but appreciated getting it – and a wide range of attendant certifications – in one package.

Sampson said it was proving to be an excellent way to foster a team culture at the workplace.

“It’s all about setting up the staff for success,” said Carson. “People are the ones who make the company, and they are the biggest asset.”

This is the fourth wood plant start-up Carson has been involved with (the others were in Kenora, High Level, Alberta, and Truro, Nova Scotia), and he will stay on to manage the plant.

For Sampson, who’s seen this mill through thick and thin over the past couple of decades, completing the first test run successfully was a sweet moment.

“It felt really good – I was surprised at how good it felt. It’s been a long time coming.”

Here’s to a long time running…

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