One person's problem is another's opportunity.
Flax has been grown in the state since before North Dakota had a star on the flag and throughout the last roughly 12 decades a particular problem has persisteduntil recently.
Straw left over from flax production is hard to till back into the soil due to its resistance to decomposition as well as its fibrous and diuturnal physical characteristics, which wreak havoc on farming equipment and causes logistical problems for North Dakota farmers. Throughout much of the state's history it was a common practice for farmers to windrow and burn the straw at a negative financial and labor cost to themselves and their equipment, but new technology may offer an alternative.
In 2006, three North Dakotans with various agricultural backgrounds joined forces to launch NSB Valhalla, a company that uses patented refining and manufacturing technology to transform flax straw into a commercially viable pellet-heating source for use in residential, commercial and agricultural settings.
The idea came at a peculiar time and place.
"I was in Walla Walla, Washington, sitting in my hotel when I thought it up," said Jay Bexell, co-founder. "I've worked on farms in the past and now doing commercial ag insurance I am around a lot of ag technology."
Although the company name may sound unusual, there is a reason to the madness. The initials NSB are for the founders Roger Neshem, Scott Sjol and Jay Bexell and paying homage to the Scandinavian heritage of the area. Valhalla is a Scandinavian word meaning "Viking Heaven."
Although the company was launched in 2006, the ball was slow to begin rolling.
"It took a lot of time to put together a plan and perfect the process, which we did through a lot of trial and error," Bexell said.
After satisfying initial logistical problems, the three men went about obtaining and assembling numerous industrial-type machines and components capable of processing and extruding a finished flax straw heating pellet product with the financial backing of a grant they received in 2007 from the North Dakota Agricultural Products Utilization Commission.
APUC, a program of the North Dakota Department of Commerce, was established in 1979 for the purpose of providing grants to pursue research and development of new state-based agricultural products or expand their use. NSB Valhalla received $53,500 in grant money to assist in the purchase of industrial-strength equipment such as a 100-horsepower rotary pellet extrusion mill, a cooler/drier tower and a gravity table screening machine.
"The money we received from APUC was put to good use," Sjol said, speaking about the equipment.
The equipment they obtained using the APUC grant allowed them to start small-scale production, making 50 tons of pellets per day at their pilot production facility in Lonetree, a small town between Des Lacs and Berthold.
The production method technology did not exist prior to NSB's investigation and is now under a provisional U.S. patent while an international and U.S. patent is being finalized.
"It's not like putting it into a blender," Neshem said.
The process begins with baled flax straw arriving at the facility where it is put through an industrial hammermill. An all-natural additive is then blended with the processed flax to aid in the extrusion process. The product is then put into a 100-horsepower rotary pellet extrusion mill where it is extruded in pellet form ranging from 1/2 to 1 1/2 inches in length. As a result of the extrusion process the pellets emerge at temperatures reaching 300 degrees, so to cool them down, the pellets next go into a cooler/drier tower. As the pellets cool and dry they become more durable and less likely to crumble. Finally the pellets are put through a gravity table screening machine that separates fine particulates or other matter from the final product. Leftovers are put back through the process, leaving no waste. The end result is a 100 percent natural product.
It's the natural and renewable aspects of pellet heat that has people and countries around the world interested.
Although the use of flax pellets is a relatively new idea, Bexell said the use of sawdust and corn pellets as sources of heat have been used in Europe for at least the last 20 years and is becoming an increasingly attractive alternative to fossil fuels in light of recent supply problems, increase in price and the movement toward renewable energy.
Leading the European movement toward renewable energy is Sweden, which has set a national goal of converting all residential and light commercial heating systems stoves, boilers and furnaces from fossil fuel systems to pellet-based heating systems by 2020. According to environmental writer Larry West, more than 75 percent of Sweden's energy came from oil in 1970, but by 2003 was reduced to 32 percent. Currently, fewer than 10 percent of Swedish homes heat their homes with oil.
Other European countries investigating pellet heating systems include Denmark, Italy, Austria, Germany and Finland.
The increasing popularity of pellet heating systems in Europe has transcended the Atlantic, creating a wave of optimism and interest. Since pellet-based heating equipment began being developed and marketed in this country in 1999, NSB said the market has grown roughly 20 percent annually, which they attribute to extreme price fluctuations for oil and the "green" movement, both in the private and public sector.
With the pellet industry gaining momentum in the U.S., NSB said they believe they have found the ideal solution that will not only benefit the U.S. as a whole in terms of greater environmental and foreign policy controls, but will be greatly beneficial to North Dakota's economy and its farmers.
"The straw that we use is a waste product and a time loss for farmers a double negative but this technology can generate additional revenue for farmers," Sjol said. "If they have the equipment to do it, instead of losing money they can gain money."
"It's a renewable thing, the supply is not going to deplete," Neshem added. "We don't have to rely on foreign countries for our energy and using flax keeps the money in North Dakota."
Aside from the financial gain, NSB said there are environmental gains by using flax because of its unique properties.
In doing their preliminary research, NSB contracted with an independent lab to test their flax pellets against the commercially available corn and sawdust wood pellet varieties. While tests results showed that all three varieties meet most Environmental Protection Agency guidelines, flax was shown to have a higher BTU per pound, was cheaper to obtain, and because of its location, was more readily available.
"There's such a high demand for corn from the food, ethanol and livestock industries that there is a potential for a supply problem and with the high market price, it makes it very uneconomical," Bexell said.
Sjol added that burning sawdust pellets produces creosote, a highly combustible byproduct that has been identified as a pollutant and human carcinogen by the U.S. government, a byproduct not found by burning flax.
The three founders, who have invested nearly $500,000 combined into the project, are now looking for outside capital to create an industrial-scale production facility, which they hope to break ground on by next year. Due to the flax concentration in the north-central part of the state, NSB said they plan to build the plant within a 50-mile radius of Minot.
Once into large-scale production, they said they will be able to produce 400 to 500 tons per day, adding millions of dollars to the state's economy. NSB estimated that the cost of a 40-pound bag of flax pellets will be equivalent to that of sawdust pellets, currently around $5, and one bag will be able to provide consistent heat for 24 hours.
"We are at a time and place in the world with the green movement and renewable resources that it all fell into place," Neshem said. "This is not something that is going away it will be here 100 years from now."