Dr. Michael Curtis
These days of falling oil prices may be causing alternative fuel suppliers a few sleepless nights. But one tiny company in Eastern Connecticut is forging ahead with plans to break into the fuel pellet market with a surprising new ingredient.
Dr. Michael Curtis has had a long and distinguished career in Connecticut as a consulting environmental engineer, but now he’s an entrepreneur. He and his business partner, Joel Douglas, are the brains behind Frog City Fuels, a company that’s making fuel pellets with a difference.
"These pellets are made of approximately 50 percent wood, and 50 percent what I’ll call pre-consumer, as opposed to post-consumer, waste products," Curtis told me at Frog City’s 4,000-square-foot rented facility in Norwich.
Behind Curtis were bales and bales of that material. "This is a bed liner, which is a waste product -- never been used, it’s the end off factory runs, very high heat content, and completely non-recyclable."
Picture something similar to what disposable diapers are made of: a thin layer made of cellulose and plastic. This, Curtis said, burns hotter -- and surprisingly, cleaner -- than wood. The ash content is higher, but there’s less sulfur in the emissions, and many tens of thousands of tons of the stuff are readily available, simply waiting to be burned.
At the moment, Frog City is producing the pellets in a small experimental milling machine.
"We bring mixed materials into the front end of the machine," Curtis said. "It augers up into a hammer mill...and and you can see the pellet mill is like a spaghetti extruder - a hash grinder if you will."
Curtis and Douglas have angel funding and some cash from Connecticut Innovations, the state’s technology investment arm, to ramp up their business. So far, they’ve sold a few hundred tons of pellets to Agway stores, for retail customers, but the overall pellet market is hot right now, growing at up to eight percent a year. They're looking to scale up -- way up.
The company's real target is big commercial customers who might buy pellets in bulk -- particularly isolated businesses with high fuel needs who currently rely on oil and are too remote for natural gas. "If a facility’s simply buying heat, like a greenhouse and spending huge amounts on oil to do this, this is a very enviable alternative cost-wise," Curtis said.
That alternative was more enviable last summer when oil prices were up near four dollars a gallon, and the pellets were half the price…. now the math has changed, and Curtis admitted it is a heavier lift attracting investors to his venture, but for the long term, he’s confident. "The price of oil is falling, yes," he said. "Is it going to stay there? Would you put money on the table saying oil’s going to stay down at $2.80 a gallon? I wouldn’t put money on the table."
For the kind of expansion that’s envisioned, Frog City will need a new facility, and much more funding for machinery. They have a commitment from a private company that will give them a 150,ooo-square-foot building rent-free in return for an equity stake in the business, and Curtis said that eventually, they believe as it grows, the company can provide 50 jobs.