Cremona, on the banks of the river Po almost in the middle of the Po valley, has a claim to history as the city of violins. Stradivarius had his home here. Even today the ancient streets around its cathedral host outlets for the finest stringed instruments, wonderfully crafted from veneers of wood. Cremona is also the home of ITI Engineering. It is a rather more modern industry, established in 1985 with the aim of designing and manufacturing plants for the combustion of industrial waste – particularly for the panels industry – and transforming the energy obtained into heat for the production process and, wherever possible, into power as well.

“When I was young there were around 120 small plants in this part of Italy producing wood panels of one sort or another,” says Riccardo Ferrari. "Now times have changed, and there are fewer than 10.”

Nevertheless more than 45 plants have been produced by ITI for the global MDF particle board and plywood industry. The company has become one of the world's leading design and realization company for energy plants.

Back in the company’s start-up days of the 80’s it approached the giant panel producer Fantoni. “We designed a power plant for their factory at Frioli, near Trieste” says Mr Ferrari; “but they said ‘You are too small and new a company for us to risk using you; come back to us when you have proved yourself.’”

ITI proved itself with a combined heat and power (CHP) unit for another client; which so impressed Fantoni that they gave ITI its second-ever commission, despite its being almost as new, and almost as small, as before. ITI specialises in power plants, but Mr Fantoni stresses, with passion, that plants that produce electricity alone are inefficient, uneconomic, and a waste of resources. One thing transforms them: adding heat to the equation. A combined heat and power plant changes the balance immeasurably. And that is what ITI produces. “Energy is a question of not just heat, but heat and power” says Mr Ferrari.

An obvious common factor for the panels industry is the presence of an available fuel supply for the factories: they generate, as a residue, waste wood. It can be bark, or wood dust, or sawdust. Burning virgin biomass that could be converted to panels is, as all in the industry keep trying to tell those in authority, an absurd waste of the earth’s resources; but supplying the energy needs of your factory from your own wastes is clearly a different matter.

Using waste wood to give heat and power to your factory seems sane. “But there are problems: improperly burned it can produce very high emissions. We make the best technology possible for CHP and emissions.”

It is perfectly possible, he says, to use factory waste for all the heat requirements of a panel plant: “The energy needs of a plant are around 14MW. Around 12 MW of that go to heating thermal oil for the presses; 2MW goes to heating water; and small amounts go to transport conveyors, feeding systems, and the like." ITI are prond that they can produce the most economical systems, that give the smallest amount of emissions, for panel plants. “We were also the first to propose and realize direct heating and automatic heat control for the drying process in MDF production via flash dryers.”

A key feature is the recycling of the hot gases to different parts of the plant. Mr Ferrari quotes an example that he is particularly proud of. It is a small panel factory in northern Italy. “It was an old factory – one of the 120 that used to be in the region. It was close to closing down and reducing the number of survivors by yet one more. The problems for it were its emissions: dust, CO2, NOX were all there. A year ago they were thinking of closing the factory. We redesigned its heat and power system. Among other things we looked at the drum dryer, which was giving problems, and replaced it with a belt dryer, heated by water which in turn was heated by the exhaust gases from burning its waste. The dryer is emission-free. It was a world first for such a factory – small but complete.

So we closed the circle of the plant. Now the factory is working, and emission and pollution problems have dropped to zero. It is a beautiful thing.

"The other beautiful thing that happened this year for us is that after 30 years, for their last and biggest investment around their new Deiffenbacher press, Fantoni decided to change the energy plant that supplies it. After a long fight with rival companies Fantoni asked us to design and supply the replacement. It is of 40 MW capacity. An old client has trusted in us after very many years and against very strong competition.”

It is a complete new energy plant for the new MDF line. Burning wood waste, the plant is basically made up of a hot gas generator combined with a direct drum dryer and a thermal oil boiler for heating the oil needed for the press line. It uses a 50 m2 grate to generate 10 MW of flue gas for heating dryers and 20 MW for thermal oil. The new line, called PX8, has just (July 2017) begun operation. Complete assembly, steel structure and startup is also part of ITI’s scope of supply.

“The Fantoni plant is making MDF from recycled waste, which is a challenge” says Mr Ferrari. “The recycled wood need cleaning; chips containing nails, plastic, and so on, are discarded and to power the plant we burn what they throw out. We have no choice: that is the stuff that we must burn and we must do it with the best thermal efficiency and at the lowest cost possible. And pollution control, and ash control, are also important problems. There is a chimney for exhaust gases, but it is only used during start-up. It is closed when production is running.”

“To burn waste products for heat alone is not enough” says Mr Ferrari. “It must produce power as well, and with absolutely minimal emissions. These things are real goals, and the real experience that we have.”