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New use found for flax byproduct

On blustery nights in the dead of winter, sometimes the wood stove just doesn’t seem big enough to fit all the wood needed to keep the house warm until morning.

Kevin Lumb believes he has the solution: a log made from highly compressed flax shives that burns cleaner and hotter than oak and belts out heat for over 10 hours at a stretch.

“I was standing in a field with a farmer next to a pile of shives. We were talking about how it’s too bad that nobody has found a use for it because as everybody knows it burns hot and it burns long,” said Lumb, who also owns Tasmanian Gravel at Brandon.

“So I took a sample of the product home and I started trying to compress it on a regular shop press. I felt that it could be compressed, so I started looking into densified log manufacturers.”

With no machine commercially available for making shives into logs, he and coinventor Grant Shabaga spent 2-1/2 years in his machine shop, developing their own.

Unexpected dents

Some of the dents in the walls are the result of Lumb and his partner banging their heads in frustration, he joked. The larger ones in the metal door came from the unexpected consequences of coupling a 150-hp electric motor to a massive screw press housed in one-inch-thick steel plating.

Too much moisture in the shives turned into superheated steam in the barrel of the device – which looks a bit like the Royal Canadian Air Farce’s “Chicken Cannon” on steroids – and the logs flew out like artillery shells.

To dry out the shives, Lumb designed a drum dryer, which he says is the real secret for making the logs an effective, clean-burning product.

Other logs made from a mixture of sawdust, wax and even coffee grounds don’t last as long in the stove, said Lumb. That’s because they’re formed from small sections packed together with a piston press and fall apart shortly after they begin to burn.

His “power logs,” on the other hand, are bonded under extreme pressure in a screw extrusion press. The natural lignans in the flax shives glue the materials tightly together, he said.

The 10-inch logs are four inches in diameter and weigh 4.5 pounds. Flat on one side to make them easier to stack and prevent them from rolling out of an open fireplace, the logs produce 80 per cent less smoke and 66 per cent less creosote than oak firewood, according to independent testing in a U. S. lab.

“It has more BTUs per pound than oak, or soft coal,” said Lumb, adding that the lab also found that the logs will burn for 15 hours at a stretch. To stay on the conservative side, he has decided to call them “10-hour logs.”

Flax Byproduct /

Fireplace owners will appreciate the quiet burn and reduced smoke and sparks, while blacksmiths or farriers might find the logs a less noxious substitute for coal or charcoal in forges, for work that requires less than welding heat.

Lumb is now arranging financing for a new company, FlaxPower, to build a $1 million plant at Carman to make 1.5 million logs a year from shives, to be from Schweitzer-Maudit’s nearby straw-processing plant.

The days when a farmer could call up the flax plant and order a truckload of free shives for use as livestock bedding or mulch may soon be over, said Lumb, adding that new uses are being found, such as a filler in plastics manufacturing.

“We’re not getting it for free. I think in a number of years all of this material is going to be consumed and eaten up,” he said.

The logs will be sold for $2 each, mainly to eco-conscious urban fireplace and wood stove owners, he added. With private financing mostly in place already, he hopes to begin squeezing shives into logs at Carman sometime this spring.

The operation would have started sooner, said Lumb, if he hadn’t bothered to seek development assistance from the provincial government.

“Buck passed”

“We weren’t looking for free money. But because the NDP government is always claiming to be clean and green, we were just looking for them to help us out with a reasonable rate on a loan,” he said.

In May last year, there were promising signs, he said, but even after he revised his business plan, the province’s stance on the project abruptly shifted.

“The buck has been passed around so many times that we’re back to where we started,” said Lumb.

“I figured it was a good fit for them. Here we’re taking a renewable, agricultural waste product and creating jobs in a rural community by doing value-added processing to make a carbon-neutral, environmentally friendly fuel for export to another country in a way that complements the transportation industry,” said Lumb.

“I can see why they don’t want to help us,” he added with a laugh.

Greg Archibald, vice-president of Canadian operations for Schweitzer-Maudit, said roughly 90,000 tons of shives are produced as a byproduct of the flax paper giant’s two processing plants each year.

The Carman plant, and a mobile operation at Souris, convert some 120,000 tons of flax straw into 34,000 tons of “tow,” the base material for making thin paper products such as cigarette papers and Bibles.

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