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This article is split in 2 pages for faster download times Rice Hulls in construction

Supposing that we pay not $5.00 but $25 per ton (well above current market value), we find that the purchase price of the rice hulls per ft2 wall insulated is only $0.11. Adding this $0.11 back into the cost of transport over these same distances, we arrive at a total cost per ft2 of the rice hull delivered to the job site of $0.18, $0.25, $0.32, $0.38, $0.45 and $0.52 respectively (see graph below).


With these simple calculations, we see that the transport of rice hulls should not limit or constrain their widespread use as insulation. These calculations allow us to make two comparisons, one with respect to baled straw and the other with respect to dense-pack cellulose insulation. Relative to all other types of insulation on the market today, these two types of insulation possess the highest recycle content and the lowest content of embodied energy.

On average, a two-string straw bale (14x18x36 inches) weighs 45 pounds, sells for $2.50, and transports to the job site for an additional $1.00.[1] Laid flat within a wall, the twostring bale represents 3.5 ft2 of wall surface. This gives a purchase price of $0.71 per ft2 of wall, to which we must add another $0.29 for transport. Accordingly, the total cost of baled straw per ft2 of bale wall is approximately $1.00. This represents more than five times the price of the rice hull transported 250 miles and almost twice the price of the rice hull transported 1,500 miles. Moreover, 12 inches of rice hulls at R-3.0 per inch deliver 37% more insulation than 18 inches of baled straw at R-1.45 per inch,[2] and this, at one fifth to one half the cost, using 33% less wall space.

Cellulose insulation in a dense-pack application is inserted into a wall at a density of approximately 3.5 lbs/ft3. Accordingly, one ton of cellulose insulation will insulate 571 ft2 of our proposed 12-inch deep wall. At an average delivered price of $540 per ton, cellulose insulation costs roughly $0.95 per ft2 of wall insulated. This is slightly cheaper than baled straw, but still roughly five times the price of the rice hull transported 250 miles and twice the price of the rice hull transported 1,500 miles.

If rice hull insulation compares well with straw bale and cellulose insulation, then how much more desirable should it be than those forms of insulation of a low recycle content and a high embodied energy content? The building industry in the United States demands several million tons of insulation on an annual basis. Should rice mills not form an alliance with architects and builders in displacing all forms of insulation not produced in an environmentally efficient and beneficial manner?

In rebuttal, someone might argue quite correctly that a load-bearing straw bale wall provides a lot more than just insulation. Someone might also argue that we have compared the theoretical insulation value of rice hulls over and against the installed insulation value of straw bales – a classic case of apples and oranges. But insofar as the wall system is correctly designed (no thermal conductivity via structural members), and insofar as the rice hulls are uniformly distributed and packed within the wall (no spaces unoccupied with hulls), the theoretical and installed values should be the same.

In 1994, the cellulose insulation industry consumed 420,000 tons of recycled newspapers.[3] This is an activity that should be promoted and enhanced in every possible way. If rice mills were to contribute an equivalent amount to the insulation industry, this would constitute only one third of the annual production of rice hulls in the United States.

At an average selling price of $25 per ton and an average transport distance of 600 miles, this would generate each year roughly $10.5 million dollars of revenue for rice mills and over $15 million dollars for transport companies. Since the United States generates less than 1.3% of the global production of rice hulls, the rest of the world has a lot more to gain from this simple and unsophisticated use of such an abundant agricultural byproduct. Supposing we are convinced that rice hulls offer many advantages over conventional insulating materials, how should we go about constructing a super-insulated house employing rice hulls? Supposing further that we wanted to build the structure of this house almost entirely out of agricultural waste materials, how should we proceed? Since loose rice hulls, unlike bales of straw, have no structural value, how should we build the floor, wall and roof cavities of a rice hull house? The technology that would allow us to create floor, wall and roof systems out of lowgrade cellulosic materials already exists. Companies such as Georgia-Pacific, Louisiana Pacific, Weyerhaeuser and Boise specialize in a variety of engineered lumber products such as I-joists, laminated veneer lumber (LVL), parallel strand lumber (PSL), laminated strand lumber (LSL), oriented strand lumber (OSL), glued laminated timber (GLULAM), etc. These engineered wood products offer a broad range of advantages over traditional solid-sawn lumber.

They are free of knots and other imperfections. They do not shrink, crown, twist, bow, split, check or warp. They are stronger, stiffer, lighter, straighter and far more precise than solid-sawn lumber. They can be engineered to span relatively long distances, with far more load-carrying capacity per unit of weight. Architects can design structures with far more livable and useful space, builders are not confronted with discard and waste, and carpenters find them easy to cut and install.

Currently, aspen is the primary raw material used to manufacture many of these engineered lumber products. Aspen grows in forests, and up until now, the destruction of these forests has been an inevitable consequence of making engineered lumber. Strawbale construction grabs our attention in such a powerful way for the simple reason that it makes use of an abundant agricultural waste material. In constructing a load-bearing strawbale wall, we need not chop down a single tree or impact in any way the abundant and diverse life that depends on trees. Moreover, we need not tie up an additional acre of farmland in producing the bales that are needed for its construction. The bale of straw is a secondary product or by-product of growing wheat and making flour.

Just as agriculture gives us the rice hull as a by-product of rice, can agriculture not also give us a strong woody fiber as a by-product of something else? We are looking for an agricultural by-product, that, as if by some internal logic of nature, should resemble bamboo in many ways. Not only should it be fast-growing and strong, but we might even expect to find a remarkable similarity to bamboo in terms of the structure of the plant itself, more specifically, the series of nodes and internodes that characterize the stalk or culm. Like bamboo, it should be a tall perennial grass possessing a thick-walled outer rind or cortex, but unlike bamboo, we might hope that it could be harvested and utilized as a mere by-product of something else. No land would have to be set aside specifically for its cultivation, and all of the equipment needed for its harvesting, transportation and pre-processing should already be in place. Where should we go to find such an amazing plant?

It already exists. Introduced by Christopher Columbus to the New World as far back as 1493, sugarcane represents nothing new to agriculture within the United States.[4] But ever since its introduction to the Americas, it has been cultivated primarily for the large amount of sucrose that fills its inner core. Even though all high-value sucrose lies primarily in its interior, the entire stalk is crushed, pressed and processed, and in so doing, the integrity, strength and value of the woody outer rind is totally destroyed. At best, it serves as a low-grade fuel, and at worst, it is discarded outdoors in large piles where it might eventually self-ignite through the action of thermophilic bacteria. It is hard to understand just what we are throwing away when we incinerate the outer rind of the sugarcane plant. If we compare the growth rate and fiber quality of a typical forest in the Pacific Northwest to that of a typical sugarcane plantation in Louisiana, we would discover to our great amazement that the sugarcane field clearly outperforms the forest by a large margin. Within an equivalent period of time, one acre of sugarcane can produce almost twice the board feet as an acre of the forest.

Once the whole stalk or billet passes through a conventional mill press, not only is the structural integrity of the rind destroyed, but the pith and rind become intimately mixed, and any possibility of economically separating them is destroyed. The inner core or pith of the sugarcane plant represents a biodegradable hemicellulosic fiber that has very little structural value, and if we are looking for alternatives to conventional forest products, even a small amount of pith in manufactured wood products would be quite undesirable. All attention, therefore, shifts to finding the means to separate rind from pith prior to the cutting and grinding of the sugarcane at the mill.

Today most cane in developed countries is harvested by means of a billet harvester. The billet harvester knocks the stalk down and bites into the surface of the row, taking along a lot of trash such as tramp iron, sand, clay, clay balls, stones, bricks, leaves and tops. The harvester then cuts the stalk into billets approximately 8 inches in length. In the best case, under dry conditions, a ton of cane contains 8% inorganic trash by weight, and under wet conditions, a ton of cane contains up to 30% inorganic trash by weight. Not only is the tough cellulosic fiber of the cane totally destroyed in the grinding process at the mill, but this fiber is intimately mixed at times with equal amounts of inorganic debris.

This trash going into the mill contains no sugar, and as it leaves the mill in the form of filter cake or bagasse, it carries away sugar. Each one percent of trash in the billets represents a loss in production of three pounds of sugar per ton of cane. More trash means more maintenance, more flocculent, more lime, more natural gas, more unburned bagasse, more filter cake, more front-end loaders, more water treatment, more settling basins, more draglines to clean out settling basins, more haulage, more inversion, more molasses, less sugar and more cost. Surely there has to be a way to maximize the recovery of sugar and minimize the cost of producing it, while, at the same time, fully preserving the integrity of the rind.

To solve this problem, two types of separation are required. The first separator, a dense medium separator, removes all inorganic debris from the billeted cane, and a second separator, a mechanical separator, separates pith from rind.

Engineering, Separation and Recycling LLC of Washington, Louisiana, has designed over 20 dense medium separators used extensively in the pre-processing of a large variety of root vegetables, such potatoes, carrots, salsifies and beets. This same vegetable separator can be used very effectively to separate billets from inorganic debris (see picture below). Since a sugar cane billet has a density of about 1.09 RD (quite similar to that of a potato), and since clay balls, stones, and bricks have a density well above 2.00 RD, this separation is easy and straight-forward.


After all the inorganic material is removed from the billets, they are then routed to a very modern and sophisticated mechanical separator called the "Tilby Separator." The Tilby Separator consists of an initial set of rollers (a splitter station) where the billets are cut into two longitudinal halves. Afterwards, the process splits into a right and a left set of rollers (a depithing station), each set scraping out and separating the pith from the rind. The billets pass through the splitter and depithing stations at an extraordinary speed of 20 feet per second. Only the pith is routed to the juice extractor, while the rind is sent to a dryer. Once dried to a moisture content less than 2%, the rind can be fabricated into just about any type of engineered lumber imaginable.

Since the fiber structure and length of the original billet are fully preserved in the Tilby process, a lot less glue is required in the manufacture of engineered lumber than would ordinarily be the case. If fashioned into engineered wooden studs, we have all that would be needed to create the wall cavities of our proposed rice hull house. If fashioned into engineered-wood-product I-joists, we have all that we need to create floor and roof cavities. Sills, floor tiles, roof shakes, even the fiber needed in the manufacture fibercement siding, could all be made from the extremely robust fiber of the sugarcane rind.[5][6]


Through the use of engineered lumber, the option of raising the entire structure off the ground (pier-and-beam) presents itself at a reasonable cost and permits siting in lowlying areas or on uneven terrain. Similarly, the attic easily converts into open, unobstructed and useful living space, greatly reducing the average cost per square foot of the structure.[7] Since the world-wide annual production of raw sugarcane situates at about one billion tons, about 75 million tons of dry rind are potentially available to the engineered lumber industry. This just about matches the 100 millions tons of rice hulls available each year throughout the world. With these two by-products of sugar and rice, we can build and insulate millions of homes each year.

As citizens in a large industrial society, we find it hard to do things that really make a difference. In choosing to build a structure derived in large measure from agricultural waste materials, not only do we do that which is right with respect to the environment, but we also fashion for ourselves a structure far superior to anything conventionally available. This super-insulated rice hull/sugarcane house, when correctly designed,[8] should be considerably cheaper to build than a conventional structure, while continuously benefiting its owner with utility bills never exceeding on average more than one US dollar per day.

Therefore, why build conventionally when it is far cheaper and far more sensible in every respect to do otherwise? Up until now, we could always take refuge in the fact that as long as we are unaware of the possible, we could not make it happen. But this is not so much about duty and obligation, as it is about finding new and exciting ways of responding creatively to the awesome and overwhelming beauty within our Universe.

Appendix[edit | edit source]

The First Rice Hull House

The first rice hull house, completed February, 2004, is the home of Paul and Ly Olivier. Located in the historic steamboat town of Washington, Louisiana, right across from the magnificent Magnolia Ridge Plantation,[9] it is indistinguishable from houses built in the area more than 150 years ago. Many of the building techniques described in this paper have been applied in the construction of this home.

Paul Olivier
Engineering, Separation & Recycling LLC
P.O. Box 250
Washington, Louisiana 70589
Telephone: 1-337-826-5540
Email: xpolivier@hotmail.com

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. These figures were submitted by Catherine Wanek, editor of the popular straw bale publication called The Last Straw
  2. "Measurements then showed the (straw bale) wall to insulate to R-27.5 (RSI-4.8). On a per-thickness basis, this is R-1.45 per inch (0.099 W/m°C), just about over half of the value most commonly reported."[1] p.2
  3. www.buldinggreen.com p.2 (subscription needed, nov 2010)
  4. http://web.archive.org/web/20020316053751/http://www.lib.lsu.edu:80/special/exhibits/sugar/case1.html (link not working, nov 2010)
  5. For more information on this rice hull construction technique[2]
  6. The Elimination of Extraneous Material from Sugarcane Billets [3]
  7. If, for example, the downstairs represents 60% of the total living space at a cost of $80/ft2, and if the upstairs can be converted into 40% of the total living space at an additional cost of $10/ft2, then the average cost/ft2 is only $52
  8. "Thick enough insulation and good enough windows can eliminate the need for a furnace, which represents an investment of more capital than those efficiency measures cost. Better appliances help eliminate the cooling system, too, saving more capital cost. The only moderately more efficient house and car do cost more to build, but when designed as whole systems, the superefficient house and car can often cost less than the original, unimproved versions." Hawkens, P., Lovins, A., and Lovins, H. 1999. Natural Capitalism, p. 114, Boston: Little, Brown and Company
  9. http://web.archive.org/web/20050624085458/http://www.cajuntravel.com:80/washington.html

See also[edit | edit source]