How We Grow

2021 May/June How We Grow

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ZERO WASTE From Shell to Shaker: Leadership Participant Explores New Possibilities for Almond Shells When Connor Wagner applied to participate in the Almond Board of California (ABC) Almond Leadership Program, he was eager to expand his knowledge of the industry and develop deeper relationships with his peers. Little did he know that the program would give him the chance to engage in a project that could impact the industry for years to come. For Wagner, the revelation happened during a Leadership program seminar at the University of California, Davis, which included a visit to West Biofuels in Woodland. "I thought it was really cool how they were torrefying almond shells and using that shell in other products," he said. Torrefaction is a process in which almond shells are heated in a zero-oxygen environment to evaporate moisture and decompose cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin. What's left are torrefied almond shells (TAS) containing condensed stable carbon that can be used as a filler for compounds to make rubber, plastic or composite products. 1 With his interest piqued, Wagner attended a presentation the next day led by Bill Orts and Delilah Wood of USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS), who described the potential uses for torrefied almond shells. "Long term they said they'd like to see torrefied shells in car tires," recalled Wagner, "and the whole rest of the day, I couldn't stop thinking about what Bill and Delilah had to say." From that moment on, Wagner was inspired to explore the use of TAS in rubber products for his Leadership program project (each participant is required to conduct a special project and present it at the end of the year). Getting the material in tires was a worthy ambition, but he needed a more niche application to validate the idea on a smaller scale. Wagner eventually landed on the idea of testing TAS in rubber shaker head pads used in almond harvesting equipment. "Whey not" find higher-value uses? Wagner saw this vision for almond shell use in part because of his background growing up on a dairy in Escalon – he had already witnessed the rise of a coproduct that went from worthless to valuable: whey. "Up until the late 1980s, dairy processors used to pour whey down the drain," said Wagner. Regulation prompted the dairy industry to find new uses for whey, which now has thriving markets for lactose products and whey protein. Today, Wagner's family still operates the dairy in addition to their almond orchards. The California dairy industry will use most of the two billion pounds of almond shells produced this year for bedding. However, Wagner and others are concerned about the declining number of California dairies – good motivation for opening new and potentially more lucrative markets for almond shells. The search for higher-value uses of almond coproducts also aligns with the industry's Almond Orchard 2025 Goal to achieve zero waste in the orchard while putting everything grown to optimal use. Wagner's work, in particular, builds upon existing collaboration between ABC and USDA to explore new uses and markets for almond hulls and shells. Building a supply chain from scratch On his drive home from the seminar, Wagner called his tire salesman who connected him with Holz Rubber in Lodi. After Wagner presented Holz with the details of the project, the company agreed to manufacture a small number of shaker pads for testing. But this was only the very beginning of the process. Holz was willing to make the shaker pads, but they don't actually make the rubber compounds that are used to mold their products. They provided Wagner with contact information for some compound formulators that might be willing to utilize TAS in a limited run. He spent months trying to track down these companies to convince one of them to work with him. "One of the biggest struggles of this project was getting people to call me back," said Wagner. "It's a small experimental project, so not a lot of people wanted to bother with it." He eventually found a company that was happy to work with him – R & S Processing, based in Southern California. Wagner asked the company to replace carbon black, a standard ingredient in 1 Wagner is a graduate of the 2019 Almond Leadership Program. Photo courtesy of RPM Public Relations 3

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