Million-dollar operation not in use

Material: Equipment at the plant. Photographs Supplied



THE million-dollar small log line at Radial Timber in Yarram, which can create engineered timber and promises to usher in a new era for timber processing, is not operating. It has no wood.

Radial, which is building its own hardwood plantation resource, still relies on timber from VicForests until its first plantations are mature enough to be harvested. That’s at least 10 years away.

Now, the innovative timber processor is in limbo until the Supreme Court case involving green groups and VicForests is resolved. VicForests’ appeal against the Supreme Court decision over habitat for the greater glider, which has effectively halted all native forest harvesting, has just started.

“We’ve got a few logs, as low as we have ever been in 20 years of operation,” said the managing director, Chris McEvoy.

In the interim, Radial has redeployed its skilled workforce into plantation work – thinning, slashing and fencing. It cannot afford to lose trained staff.

Mr McEvoy explained that the small log line formed part of a peeler plant, “technology that’s been around for a while, but is quite innovative”.

“You can get very small logs and peel them down to 20-30 millimetre core – basically down to a broomstick. The feed stock is very small diameter thinnings from plantation or native forest,” he said.

The round log is peeled into veneer sheets, dried, glued and pressed.

“You form engineered timber; structurally, you can in theory make mass panels, even better than CLT (cross-laminated timber), because CLT is still sawn timber.

“To get sawn timber, basically you have 30-35 per cent recovery from a log, whereas to peel a log, you get 60pc recovery – getting twice as much wood out. The only waste is the 30mm core. The rest is peeled; there is no sawdust or woodchips, only peeling from the outside. It’s a really efficient way to get high volumes from small diameter logs.”

CLT involves timber planks glued together under high pressure to create panels, which, when erected in a building, are as strong as steel. Chris said with all the interest in engineered timber and mass panels, the technology enabled processors to get as much as possible out of the current resource.

“If that means higher recovery from existing resource, it’s definitely a field that needs to be explored further,” he said.

Compared to the couple of big

LVL (laminated veneer lumber) plants in Australia, built around a timber resource, Radial’s micro LVL plant required only 15,000 tonnes of wood a year.

This would produce 7500 tonnes of LVL at a cost between $5-6 million.

“I look at it as a demonstration plant. I’d like to see 10 of these plants built

in Victoria around a resource so that the combined effect of 10 of these plants would be processing about 150,000 cubic metres from small logs. For the cost of 10 plants – $50m-$60m – they are producing the same product. Work in tandem, build the plant around the resource, not the resource around the plant.”

Chris said the peeler plant was a better way to use logs traditionally used for woodchips.

“One hundred per cent paper is value-adding, but LVL and engineered wood are value-adding to another level. We’re talking LVL retail for $3000/m3 – a high value high demand product,” he said.

This was in addition to normal radial sawing, which saws wood into wedges like the wedges of a cut cake; the company has the capacity to process 15,000m3 of radial timber a year. Radial and peeler processing would create an annual peak output of 30,000m3.

THE small log line is actually four lines in one: first, logs too small for anything will be chipped as biofuel; second, poor form wood or not a “great straight”, will be cut for firewood; third, small pieces and inadequate as a peeler log will have sapwood removed and be made into a post, for example, as an agricultural post; and fourth – the best of best will go through the peeling line for LVL.

In this way, Mr McEvoy said, the resource, either from plantation or native forest, would produce various products.

“Nothing is wasted, everything is used.”

Radial uses timber from mixed native forests, not Mountain Ash timber.

Any waste will be used in a bioenergy plant that Radial aims to install. The pyrolisis plant can produce a range of products, not just heat and energy, such as biochar and biodiesel .

A modular unit is being installed next month (April), which will process half a tonne an hour, four tonnes of waste a day. Mr McEvoy said this would process two tonnes of carbon to make biochar, which could produce a whole range of products such as fertiliser.

“The premium product for biochar is timber. It is not contaminated, burns efficiently and has an end product in high demand,” he said.

Mr McEvoy said that if Radial could demonstrate the model that was scalable, carbon could come into that model.

“It may partner with carbon credits and the social licence that comes with it,” he said, which was far superior to invest in carbon credits rather than into inaccessible forest anywhere in the world.

“That’s the lazy way; the harder way makes a difference. That is more real – something you can touch and smell, and see the result of the process,” he said.

Radial is still commissioning the small plant and peeler line.

“The sad thing is, we have nothing to put through it. It’s not a white elephant, it will process a lot of timber, but at the moment, we would like to have a paddock full of wood to use.”

About another $4 million is needed for equipment to complete the peeler plant.

However, the show still rolls on; Radial has two forestry grants for two Masters students, whose research aims to peel a whole range of species, from native forest to plantations, to gauge which peels the best, assess the drying characteristics, and build prototypes.

“It’s a a model of where we are going to go with processing,” he said.

Radial has its own 2000 hectares of land, of which about 1000ha is planted to durable hardwoods.

“The idea was in the last 12 months to have have planted 100ha; we always plan to do 100ha a year, but it was wet last year, we could not get on the land,” he said.

The planting is all self-funded.

“We have the land and not all the cash. This is holding us back,” he said.

Promises of government help, subsidies for plantations, had so far come to nought.

“If we had guidance it could happen. The land availability and suitable sites are being reduced and we are still not putting enough trees in the ground,” he said.

“We started planting trees 10 years ago. We want our own resource but were promised we would have native forest resource until 2030. We are still at least 10 years short. That is our problem – what do we do for the next 20 years? Take way native forest – it’s a potential disaster.”

All gone: Radial Timber, Yarram’s Peeler Plant has no wood.