Entrepreneur Turns Forest Groundcover Into Composite Road Signs

March 17, 2011

The U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have opted to use composite signs, such as these shields, in a number of outdoor applications, which are on display outdoors and exposed to the elements year-round.

Phil Archuletta has been in the sign business for 40 years. His company, P&M Signs, Inc., Mountainair, New Mexico, supplies signage nationally to the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Parks Service.

It was by complete chance, then, that this dyed-in-the-wool sign guy found himself in the composites business. Today, he holds a joint patent with the United States Forest Service for a composite product he calls Altree, which was selected late last year by the United Nations to be part of its display of innovative wood and paper products in Geneva, Switzerland.

In 1993, the forests of the desert southwest were being overrun with juniper, pinyon and other small trees, increasing the risk of catastrophic wildfires and causing problems for Archuletta’s long-time customers at the U.S. Forest Service. An initiative came down from policymakers in Washington D.C. tasking the agency with finding a way to get rid of the overgrowth and to find a use for the foliage.

“I was approached by the Forest Service to research other uses for the small diameter material,” he said. “I contacted the Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wis., who I’d worked with previously, and took the small materials to Madison, where we started to work in the lab.”

Archuletta knew that New Mexico natives had been using juniper as posts, primarily in fencing, since the Spanish settlers arrived several centuries ago, so it was only natural that his first idea was to turn the overgrowth into four-foot posts. With a $30,000 grant in hand, and a vision for juniper-derived composite posts that could be used in fencing throughout New Mexico’s state parks, Archuletta and Forest Lab researcher Jim Mills set to work.

“At first we ground up the material and mixed it with plaster and cement – we tried all kinds of different methods to develop a product out of it,” he explains. “Finally, we were frustrated, because nothing really looked promising. The materials weren’t holding together. The lab had a small extruder on hand, so we decided we were going to mix it with plastic and see what would come out.”

The result marked a turning point in the project.

“We mixed the juniper with plastic, put it under the press and out came the most beautiful board you’ve ever seen in your life!” Archuletta said. “I said, ‘This is what we want, we want to make a plastic wood composite and sell it all over the place for all kinds of things.’”

Motivated by that success, the team began making prototypes of posts and installing them around the state park within New Mexico’s high country in order to test in the forests of New Mexico’s high country.

“It started disintegrating into chunks – the UV just totally ate it up,” he said. “We knew what we wanted to build, but we didn’t know what kind of plastic to put in it.”

It was back to the drawing board for the crew, whose work turned now to learning everything there was to know about all the varieties of plastics. With their first attempt – a polypropylene/wood blend – unable to withstand the harsh climate of the desert, it was a matter of trial and error until they stumbled upon a solution.

“We tested everything that was out there and eventually figured out that number two plastics taken from old milk jugs did the job,” Archuletta explained. “By taking milk jugs, grinding them up and mixing them with juniper and different wood, we had a start, but we realized fast that it was going to be really hard to turn the small diameter wood into saw dust, because it’s got a lot of bark on it.”

Rather than spend precious energy developing a system for efficiently turning the materials to a typical wood flour, they decided instead to test out a composite blend using the entire tree.

“We started testing what would happen if we were to mix the bark, the needles – the whole entire tree –with number two plastics, and it worked unbelievably well,” he said. “Once we figured that out, we decided that making a flat sheet or boards for signs out of it would be better than trying to make four-by-fours.”

“My material is manufactured under pressure, and all of these other materials that are available on the market, that beat me to the market, are not made under pressure, so they have a lot of creep and swelling in it,” he said.

The pressure comes after the wood materials, which are garnered from the entire tree, are chipped to a fine fiber then mixed with recycled milk jugs that have been ground into chips. The combined material is blended and heated into a homogeneous, molten mixture then rapidly cooled, while kept under extreme pressure. Then the finished product is tailored to the customers’ specifications. In the years since first developing Altree, Archuletta has made it his mission to take the process and expand upon it. “I have been making prototypes and delivering all kinds of different signs to some of the forests,” Archuletta said.

While his sign shop still puts out product using traditional materials, Archuletta dedicates most of his time these days to drumming up capital to fund a full-scale Altree manufacturing facility. He partnered recently with Jeld-Wen Windows, Inc., in Klamath Falls, Ore., and hopes to eventually have the machinery and capacity to manufacture Altree products in large sheets. The new equipment will give his company the capacity to fulfill requests from the Forest Service and other groups to produce not only signs, but picnic tables, outhouses and “just about any kind of project they have going into the forest,” he says.

“I have a pilot plant in New Mexico developing the equipment, but I can only make a 10-inch board,” he said. “I’m working with the Jeld-Wen engineers to help make a bigger machine.”

While he waits, Archuletta has contented himself with collecting recycled milk jugs from the community and using his on-site granulator to break them down to make a resin for mixing with juniper and pinyon.

“My intent, once I get the funding, is to put a big processing plant in New Mexico or Oregon, then pass legislation to allow me to set up recycling centers in every city in the state,” he said. “It would clean up the forest, it would clean up the landfill, and it would put all that wasted material on the roads to guide people throughout the country.”

Paula Yoho is a freelance writer based in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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