Don Burr, head instructor with Northern Maine Community College's mechanized logging program, watches a student use a delimber machine at a woodlot in Chapman in 2018. MaineFlame Inc. plans to use debris from wood harvesting operations to create a water-resistant industrial heating pellet. Credit: Anthony Brino / BDN

ASHLAND, Maine — An Ashland mill owner is planning a $7 million expansion to produce a new wood pellet product.

Tyler Player, a mechanical engineer and owner of MaineFlame Inc., wants to turn out more than the compressed logs his company now produces at the former Levesque lumber mill in Ashland. The expanded operation would manufacture a different type of industrial heating pellet.

The state’s forest products industry has an $8.1 billion economic impact and supports nearly 32,000 jobs, according to the Maine International Trade Center in Portland. In heavily forested Aroostook County, which recently suffered layoffs at Katahdin Forest Products operations in Ashland and Oakfield, the deal could mean 20 to 30 new jobs and more places to sell Maine’s wood products.

Player’s operation would use leftover tree debris to make steam-exploded wood pellets, also called “black pellets,” because they resemble coal.

“These steam-exploded pellets are meant to replace coal for utility boilers,” Player said. “You are taking waste wood and turning it into a mid-grade coal.”

The product is used in large-scale commercial and utility boilers. The pellets have the heating properties of coal with 20 percent more heating value than wood pellets, he said.

The pellets are made by treating the raw materials with high pressure and steam, then quickly depressurizing them. The process makes them water resistant and able to be stored in damp conditions, according to a report from Power Engineering International.

The $7 million expansion will come from private investment, said Player, who also operates engineering consulting firm Player Design Inc. in Presque Isle and K-Pel Industrial Services in Fort Fairfield. He declined to give further financial details.

Player hopes to finalize a deal for the mill’s expansion within the next couple of months. 

He started MaineFlame Inc. in 2020 when he bought the former lumber mill. The company makes fire logs out of compressed wood for use in woodstoves and fireplaces. 

The Presque Isle native invested in Ashland because of its deep ties to the wood products industry. The town is close to Maine’s North Woods, where several companies harvest, and has access to unwanted products like limbs and tops of trees that are unusable in logging operations.

“We’re able to take the waste wood and underutilized wood, turning it into an energy export for Maine,” said Chris Gardner, director of operations for the Player Design Inc., a group of companies that includes MaineFlame.

Ashland would be the first place in Aroostook County to make the product, which is destined to hit European markets first, Gardner said.

Player has filed a request with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to amend his air emission license to include the expanded facilities. The expansion will not increase the mill’s air emissions, Player said.

The public review process is underway by the Department of Environmental Protection. A public notice was issued in The Star-Herald on March 8. A request for a public hearing must be submitted in writing on or before March 28, said David Madore, deputy commissioner of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

Once the air emission license amendment is issued it will be posted to the department’s website, Madore said.

Player Holdings LLC  was issued an air emission license on Feb. 25, 2021, for the extruded log manufacturing facility, according to the department’s website.

Biomass product dust can pose a fire hazard, but steam exploded pellets are less likely to self-heat and ignite than regular wood pellets, according to a study done by the American Chemical Society in 2021. The pellets are classified as nonhazardous goods under the United Nations Recommendations on the Transport of Dangerous Goods, the study said.

The pellets will be stored uncovered in warehouses, Player said.

Ashland Town Manager Cyr Martin said he did not have information on the expansion.