CalPlant produces rice straw-based composite panels
CalPlant produces rice straw-based composite panels

An upcycled medium-density fiberboard (MDF) product will soon make its commercial debut—and without the formaldehyde-based resins that give MDF its bad name and smell. In November, the first run of rice straw–based MDF panels will roll off the press at the $315 million CalPlant I manufacturing facility in Willows, Calif. The product looks like and performs as well as, if not better than, wood fiber–based MDF, according to CalPlant vice president of sales, marketing, and sustainability Elizabeth Whalen. Its commercial name and brand will be revealed closer to its release, she says.

Rice straw is an agricultural waste product with no known subsequent value, not even as feedstock due to its lack of nutrients. Following the annual harvest of rice, disposing the leftover stalks in the field has been a long-standing environmental problem in California, the second largest rice-producing state after Arkansas. Until the 1990s, farmers would burn the byproduct until the state banned the practice due to its impact on air quality. Now, rice farmers typically flood their fields after harvest to accelerate the decomposition process, a process that not only consumes a large volume of water, but also releases methane into the air.

CalPlant’s facility, a project in the planning and permitting stages for two decades, is strategically located in the Sacramento Valley at the crux of its supply chain: Its primary raw material—rice straw—will come entirely from farms within a 15- to 25-mile radius, though Whalen expects the average distance to be even closer. “No one else can say that,” she says.

In the past two years, CalPlant has collected 100,000 tons of rice straw per year, which represents 20% of the agro-waste available in the Sacramento Valley. Whalen expects the plant to use about 300,000 tons per year, which will require the company to expand from its current staff size of about 30 to 115 full-time workers once the plant is in operation.

When completed, the new facility will roll out master MDF panels, up to 10 feet wide by 18 feet long, from a 10-foot-wide by 115-foot-long continuous press. At design capacity, CalPlant will produce 140 million square feet of MDF panels, assuming a ¾-inch basis, each year, equating to 30% of California’s annual MDF demand or 36 to 41 truckloads of output per day. In actuality, the products leaving the plant floor will vary in thickness from 2 millimeters to 30 millimeters, and be used in everything from thin crossbands in the ply sandwich of composite panels, laminate flooring, and doors; to carved molding and trim; and to millwork to be painted or finished with
a veneer.

This story originally appeared in ProSales’ sister publication architect.