Gasification plant still in works

Duane Hicks

If all goes according to plan, site work for the new plasma gasification plant in International Falls could begin sometime in 2012.
John Howard of Coronal, the company developing the gasification plant, gave an update on how the project is proceeding to delegates attending the annual Northern Networks trade conference last Thursday at La Place Rendez-Vous here.
Work on the project, which is being funded by the federal and state governments, began a few years ago. Since then, a feasibility study has been completed and it is now in the conceptual design stage.
“At the end of the day, we have to produce a solution that’s sustainable environmentally, sustainable economically, it’s able to provide jobs, and have a life well beyond 20 years,” said Howard.
“That’s kind of the big picture of our project.”
Gasification is a process that converts materials into carbon dioxide and hydrogen by using high temperatures. The new plant will use plasma torches to gasify municipal solid waste into energy.
(Howard clarified that gasification should not be confused with “burning,” as the latter is an old technology which has more emissions than the former).
The driving force behind the project is to find an alternative to putting solid waste in landfills.
Basically, solid waste will be brought to a waste transfer station. Garbage will be bundled into “power pills,” which can be stored, and then gasified in a plasma gasification reactor.
The resulting gas mixture is a hydrogen- and carbon-rich fuel called “syngas.” This syngas would be captured, sold as a cheaper alternative to natural gas, and used to create steam and electricity.
Howard estimated syngas could be converted into biodiesel in three-four years.
Boise potentially will be one of the users of this syngas. And theoretically, syngas even could be put back into the gasification plant to create electricity to fuel the plasma torches.
A second byproduct of the process will be an igneous rock that can be used for roads. Like the syngas, this also would be sold.
What all of this means is once the gasification plant is up and running, not only will municipalities be paying tipping fees to drop off their garbage but the plant will be selling syngas and the rock byproduct.
The project is being worked on by a team which involves many players from the community and various levels of government, covering aspects ranging from job creation to education and the environment.
“It’s not just about the technology,” Howard stressed. “We’re looking at finding a solution for the community.
Howard added “the rest of the world, quite frankly, is kicking our butt” when it comes to plasma gasification technology.
“Europe has a very mature energy infrastructure, and they maintain it and they advance it,” he remarked, noting Japan has two gasification facilities and is about to get another three online.
“These are facilities that exist today. This has been done,” he said. “We are trying to bring it to the United States.”
The irony, said Howard, is that just like numerous other technologies, Japan has taken gasification technology that was developed by NASA and then advanced it to a point “where it is a very robust technical solution.”
Other gasification projects are being developed in Wisconsin, Florida, Massachusetts, and Louisiana, but this one is furthest along among those.
“The significance of this project is, at the end of the day, we will make a huge impact on the United States, North America, and the rest of the world,” Howard enthused.
Also tying into the conference theme, “Local Solutions for a Sustainable Future,” were two presentations about supporting local bio-energy.
One speaker was Adam Sherman, a fuel supply expert with BERC, a U.S. organization involved in the assessment, development, and management of community-scale biomass energy projects.
Sherman, who hails from Vermont, said wood fuels have come full circle from being the primary fuel source 150 years ago, and it is being used more and more around the world.
He noted the cost of heating with wood is cheaper than oil or propane, and comparable to natural gas.
As well, modern wood heating efficiency has increased greatly over the years while emissions of carbon monoxide from wood boilers has decreased 1,000 percent.
In the northeastern U.S. (namely Vermont and New Hampshire), schools, hospitals, and college campuses are being heated with wood chips while other parts of the U.S. and Canada also are using wood fuels for heating and cooling (St. Paul, Mn. has been doing it for 15 years).
Parts of Europe are even more advanced, with parts of Austria, northern Italy, and the Scandinavian countries using community heating plants to provide wood-fueled heat for large numbers of users.
Sherman noted that getting projects like these started require local champions and community buy-in, as well as a readily-available fuel supply.
As well, clusters of projects done at the same time are desirable because it creates a “critical mass,” making it more affordable to get building contractors, wood fuel suppliers, and so forth.
Sherman said the advantages of biomass energy projects includes climate change mitigation, energy conservation, rural economic development, and sustainable forestry.
The second speaker was Lorne Morrow, CEO of the Centre for Research and Innovation in the Bio-Economy (CRIBE), a provincial initiative to transform the forest products industry in Northern Ontario.
Based in Thunder Bay, CRIBE is an initiative focused primarily on bringing practical “green” bioeconomy products to the marketplace. It has a $25-million pot with which to help fund such projects.
“We’re looking for stuff that can come to the market, that can rejuvenate the north,” explained Morrow.
“We’re very specific, we’re very localized.”
One example of a potential project is a small energy system (combined heat and power for remote First Nations) while others include new building systems and merchandising.
Morrow said he’s seen first-hand the devastation of small towns which used to be mill towns, such as Red Rock, adding Fort Frances has been “buffered” thus far.
“We really have to bring the north back,” he remarked.
In the past, Northern Ontario had abundant low-cost fibre, low energy costs, skilled labour, and a 62-cent dollar. But life has changed.
There’s still an abundance of fibre, but electricity and transportation costs are up, the loonie is high compared to the U.S. greenback, and there’s significant offshore competition.
On the bright side, however, the region still has facilities that can be used, the best certifiable, sustainable forest around, and skilled labourers who want to continue to work in the north.
Those who have questions, or are looking for more information about CRIBE, can contact Morrow at 1-807-474-2028 or via e-mail at