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Gasification holds promise, comes with obstacles

Biomass gasification, or converting waste materials into gas, has the potential to create an emerging renewable energy source while also ridding factories of unneeded byproducts.

Biomass gasification, or converting waste materials into gas, has the potential to create an emerging renewable energy source while also ridding factories of unneeded byproducts.

But while it has promise, finding a reliable and steady source of biomass and making the operation profitable can be difficult, according to a tutorial held Tuesday in the Alerus Center.

The biomass gasification tutorial was one of several held Tuesday before the start of the two-day Biomass '08 Technical Workshop put on by UND's Energy and Environmental Research Center.

The biomass workshop has attracted more than 300 registrants from more than 30 states and six countries, including 120 for the pre-workshop tutorial sessions on biomass gasification.

Gov. John Hoeven attended the workshop Tuesday and gave a keynote address, emphasizing the importance of North Dakota's role in alternative energy production.

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"There is a tremendous upsurge in interest in developing energy, transportation fuels and chemicals from biomass," EERC Director Gerald Groenewold said in a prepared statement.

While there are obstacles to creating small-scale biomass gasification systems, agricultural areas such as Grand Forks would be prime locations for such an operation, presenter and EERC Research Manager Phil Hutton said during one tutorial session.

"If you can find a lot of biomass in one place, that's where you put your plant," he said.

Grand Forks would be ideally located for such an operation, Hutton said, because of the availability of local biomass sources from discarded waste byproducts located within a 50-mile radius including:

n About 293,000 tons per year of potato mash and dry potato waste created by J.R. Simplot.

n About 573,000 tons per year of beet pulp and beet tailings from the American Crystal Sugar Co.

n About 90,000 combined tons per year of sunflower hulls from the Dahlgren and Cargill plants

n About 133,000 tons per year of spoiled grain from area grain elevators.

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A centrally located plant would cut down on transportation costs for the low-density biomass and could be co-located, helping to power a factory that produces a waste byproduct used in the biomass gasification system.

But Hutton said putting the whole picture together and finding a formula that makes enough money to make it worthwhile has so far proved to be elusive.

"Until you can find a way to make it profitable, you are just not going to see much of it put out there," he said.

Hutton said about 600 million tons a year of biomass residue is created in the U.S., ranging from wood sources, lignin, crop waste, animal waste and municipal solid waste. But Hutton said the variety of sources also can be a detriment, as gasification systems need to be modified to process different types of waste products.

Hutton said animal waste, especially from commercial feedlots, which also have been targeted by digester technologies to trap gases, could be an interesting source for gasification.

"That's an extremely attractive market if you can tap into it," he said. "A lot of the companies that have a lot of manure have to worry about where they are located, nearby residents and the smell. They have an added incentive to gasify it and get rid of it."

Schuster covers business. Reach him at (701) 780-1107; (800) 477-6572, ext. 107; or send e-mail to rschuster@gfherald.com . Read his business blog at www.areavoices.com/bizbuzz .

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