Ten pounds of fleece typically ends up weighing about five pounds, once the dirt, grease and other additives are washed out. But cleaning -- or scouring -- fleece is not an easy task, especially for small- to mid-sized wool mills.
"One of the challenges we have in this country, is that we don't have a lot of scouring facilities and some that we do have aren't effective," said Robyn Kuhl, administrator of Natural Fiber Producers, a nationwide cooperative based in Sandpoint, Idaho.
There are about three scouring facilities in the U.S., she said. Small mills often don't have good scouring equipment, and some clean fiber in washing machines or basins, which may not clean the wool well enough for production. Dirty wool tends to get caught in equipment.
"It lowers production value and the end product doesn't look as good and it doesn't feel as good," Kuhl said.
Mountain Meadow Wool Mill in Buffalo created a state of the art wool washing system and wastewater treatment system called the Optimized Scouring Line, thanks to a $496,000 Phase II Small Business Innovation Research grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It's designed to be economically feasible and environmentally sustainable for small-scale wool processors.
"It will double our production, use significantly less water and heat, and a lot less energy," said Karen Hostetler, co-owner of Mountain Meadow Wool Mill.
Small Business Innovation Research grants support high quality, advanced concepts research related to important scientific problems and opportunities in agriculture that could lead to significant public benefit if successful, according to the USDA website.
Mountain Meadow Wool Mill got the grant with the help of a $5,000 grant from the Wyoming SBIR/STTR Initiative, which helps qualified small businesses and individuals access funding opportunities provided by the Small Business Innovative Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs.
Hostetler and Valarie Spanos opened Mountain Meadow Wool Mill in 2007 to give ranchers a place to process wool locally. It is the only wool mill in Wyoming and is one of the largest full-service spinning mills in the West. Each year, it processes about 15,000 pounds of wool into yarn, roving, batting, felt and more.
It's all done without harsh chemicals, part of Mountain Meadow Wool Mill's long-standing commitment to running an eco-friendly operation.
"I want people to be able to make a baby blanket and put it next to a baby's skin without having to worry about the chemicals," Hostetler said.
Their newest project will further that goal by recycling water, reducing energy use and reserving byproducts for other uses.
Research has been done, prototypes have been tested, and now Mountain Meadow Wool Mill is in the process of installing the new equipment and collecting data.
The first component of the Optimized Scouring Line to be installed will be scouring tanks, or bowls, in which the wool will be washed.
The second component of the Optimized Scouring Line will be a wastewater treatment system, which will pretreat the water before it goes into the sewer system.
The process will allow byproducts -- such as sludge and wool grease -- to be separated from the wastewater and collected. The sludge can then be composted and sold for use as fertilizer. Wool grease can be used as a biofuel, lubricant or processed into lanolin, which is often used in cosmetics and pharmaceutical products. At this time, Mountain Meadow Wool Mill plans to use the wool grease it collects to lubricate its machinery.
The two-year USDR grant will be complete in September. In the future, Hostetler and Spanos plan to manufacture and sell the Optimized Scouring Line. While there is not a large market for the equipment, several small- to mid-sized wool mills have already shown an interest in purchasing components. The wastewater treatment system may have uses in other industries, too.