Heating With Hemp
Tree Free Heat, a Waterville startup, recycles hemp waste for fuel.
The idea for Tree Free Heat came to entrepreneur Dylan Veilleux a few years ago while he was reading about Henry Ford. The inventor of the Model T once contem-plated hemp as its fuel source instead of gasoline. Veil-leux became fascinated by this idea and started learning as much as he could about hemp, including working on a nearby hemp farm. He discovered that millions of pounds of hemp fibers are wasted each year by Maine’s growing CBD industry, and that hemp has many of the same qualities as wood but takes only a few months to grow.
Veilleux initially wanted to turn that hemp waste—the stalks of the hemp plant that are discarded after cannabidiol (CBD) is extracted—into pellets similar to wood pellets used for home heating. He’s still working on this idea, but last year he found success with a second product: a fire starter made from the woody core of the hemp stalk and citronella wax.
He and his team—two friends who were out of work due to COVID-19 as well as his business partner and mentor at Thomas College, Nick Rimsa—spent last summer and fall creating the fire starter, marketing it, and finding their ideal customer. They sold it at campgrounds across the state, and online through their website as well as Back40, a Maine startup that offers rental outdoors equipment.
This January Tree Free Heat plans to launch its fire log, an alternative fuel for woodstoves and campfires. The logs, made with the same hemp material as the fire starters, burn as hot as wood.
Veilleux developed all the prototypes himself, working with small manufacturers around the state and learning from trial and error in his Waterville home. “I still live with my mom, so every time [I do another prototype] she’s upset because I have to make such a mess,” he says. But he isn’t deterred. Although only 22, Veilleux has more experience in the startup realm than most. He’s been inventing products since he was 15. He plans to continue to perfect the fire starter and log, and develop an efficient system for hemp pelletization.
Maine’s hemp cultivation program received federal approval in 2020, and the future looks good for hemp byproducts as the CBD and canna-bis industries continue to grow. “Above all, I want hemp to win,” says Veilleux. “I care about my environment. I want my future children to live in a clean world. I do a lot of reading on the future of energy, and I think it’s the most important question. I know biomass won’t be number one, but it needs to be in the running. If I heat Maine only, I’m cool with that. I’m really happy I found something I love.”