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Is Biomass the Brave New World of Energy? January 27, 2010

It was an idea hatched in algae. Now its creators believe it could grow into a better way to power the West, and possibly beyond.

First things first, the scientists at Whitefish-based Algae Aqua-Culture Technologies (AACT) must put their idea into action and test its efficiency. And they have found a willing partner in the F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Co. of Columbia Falls.

Scientists at AACT have a vision to use woody biomass and algae to produce both heat and commercially viable organic compounds for use in fertilizers. In the process, the system would create methane to be converted into electricity while also capturing and utilizing carbon dioxide, rather than releasing it into the atmosphere.

A team of engineers and scientists is currently working on a model biorefinery for Stoltze. It will be implemented at Stoltze’s mill site over the next couple of months and, if it proves efficient, a much larger full-scale biorefinery will follow. Mike Holecek, a project leader, said the system’s pyrolytic boiler can handle a range of biomass, but initially woodchips will be the primary fuel.

The project, called the “Green Power House,” has already garnered investors and a range of supporters, including retired Air Force Lieutenant General Richard Swope, who now works as a consultant for the U.S. Department of Defense. He has been part of multiple alternative energy projects.

Swope said the Defense Department has steadily increased its desire to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil and pursue alternative energy resources. The Air Force, Swope said, is the Defense Department’s largest consumer of fuel.

“There have been a number of flight tests conducted with military aircraft with a mix of biomass-derived jet fuel,” Swope said.

Current research, on behalf of the Defense Department, is seeking ways to “convert biomass specifically into feedstock or fuel,” Swope said. Keeping his eye out for groundbreaking alternative energy projects, Swope happened to find one in his own backyard. Swope, who lives in Whitefish, said AACT’s project could have influence far beyond Stoltze’s mill site.

“Absolutely, something like this could help at the national level,” Swope said. “It could help with the Defense Department.”

In December, Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. announced the closing of its linerboard plant in Frenchtown, ending employment for 417 workers and raising serious questions for an already beleaguered timber industry in western Montana. Smurfit-Stone was the state’s biggest buyer of slash, small trees and sawmill residuals. Many in the logging industry relied on the mill.

The linerboard plant’s closure triggered discussions about the potential of biomass-derived energy in Montana. With such a major wood consumer gone, folks in the state’s timber industry were left grasping for new uses for forest products. Biomass energy began to dominate headlines throughout Montana.

Furthermore, NorthWestern Energy announced in early January that it’s in discussions with Smurfit-Stone officials about the possibility of turning the shuttered linerboard mill into a biomass power plant. When in operation, the mill already functioned as a biomass cogeneration plant, burning wood products in a boiler to produce energy used at the facility, as well as excess electricity put back on the power grid.

NorthWestern is also working with the Montana Community Development Corporation to study the feasibility of turning other mills into cogeneration biomass power plants.

On Jan. 21, Stoltze hosted a biomass energy forum as part of the “Re-Powering the Flathead” community dialogue series at Flathead Valley Community College. One of the speakers was Dr. Evan Sugden, a member of the AACT team. The event was heavily attended.

Amid all the biomass headlines, AACT’s proposal is particularly striking, primarily, because the ball is already rolling and, secondarily, because it’s such a foreign concept to most outside of scientific circles.

At its core, this seemingly brave new world is actually rooted in two familiar standbys: warm water and old friends. Several years ago, Holecek, who has a background in biochemistry and environmental design, was asked by his friend Paul Stelter to research new approaches to utilizing the geothermal qualities of Alameda’s Hot Springs Retreat, located in the town of Hot Springs. Stelter is part owner of Alameda’s.

From that initial research came the creation of Algae Aqua-Culture Technologies, a partnership between Stelter, Holecek and Michael Smith, who, like Holecek, lives in Whitefish. Sugden, a scientist and professor at the University of Washington, joined the team later. And Swope came on as a chief strategist and promoter, while numerous other people lent their support, through money and otherwise.

In Hot Springs, the AACT team launched a project using low temperature geothermal water to grow algae. The algae are fed into geothermal-heated bioreactors, or digesters, which are essentially sophisticated composters. Sugden calls the Stoltze project’s digester an “algae-eating, mechanical cow.”

The bioreactors consume the algae, along with some cellulose, to produce methane, which is converted into electricity. The Flathead County Landfill installed a system last year that takes methane emanating from trash and turns it into electricity.

But what really caught the scientists’ attention wasn’t the methane produced by the digesters; it was the waste product the digesters spit out. That waste product turned out to be a substance ideal for use in soil amendments such as organic fertilizer.

Also, the scientists discovered that their project’s control system is intelligent enough to manage any type of thermal energy, including heat at sawmills. That discovery led to discussions with Stoltze. And while the AACT team is now focused on the Stoltze project, it hasn’t abandoned its geothermal research, Holecek said.

Sugden, emphasizing the difference between “hot” and “warm” water, said there are numerous warm springs scattered across the West that could be utilized to run algae-based systems like AACT’s.

At Stoltze’s model biorefinery, bioreactors will digest algae – grown on site in a greenhouse – and produce organic compounds for fertilizer, similar to the Hot Springs geothermal project. But it will also incorporate a high-tech pyrolytic boiler. The boiler will generate heat to dry lumber in Stoltze’s kilns, as well as steam to run the rest of the system.

The boiler serves another important function – it produces biochar, or charcoal. The biochar can then be combined with the other organic compounds produced by the system for use in organic soil amendments. The organic fertilizer market, the AACT team points out, is growing rapidly.

With the system, Smith said carbon is sequestered and used to make a substance that could be valuable for agricultural purposes. He sees both commercial and environmental potential. So does Swope.

“The beauty is that there is an enormous amount of intellectual energy coming together to try to solve and resolve energy issues,” Swope said. “It is very exciting.”

Meyers Reece, Flathead Beacon – http://www.flatheadbeacon.com/articles/article/is_biomass_the_brave_new_world_of_energy/15613/

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