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Making energy from unwanted stuff

In an unassuming green and tan building just east of Greenwood, Miss., a new dimension in energy production is about to be launched.

It's not the kind of energy you put in your pickup, tractor, or combine, and it doesn't use corn or soybeans in its production.

Rather, it's the kind of energy that produces heat — lots of heat — for industrial and manufacturing operations, and the really neat thing is that it can do it much cheaper and more efficiently than with natural gas or fossil fuels.

But wait, as they say on the TV infomercials, it gets better: that cheaper energy can be produced from cotton stalks, soybean plant residues, wood chips, kenaf, forestry residues, chicken litter, sugarcane bagasse — almost any kind of biomass material will do.

“We can make energy from stuff nobody wants,” says Bobby Miller, who retired in 2001 after 32 years of cotton farming in the Greenwood area, and was so impressed with the potential in this new process that he quickly raised several million dollars in capital and now has a new career as chief financial officer of Associated Physics of America (APA).

“Cotton stalks have an amazing amount of heat energy; 139 pounds contain a potential 1 million Btu. There's a million acres of cotton within easy reach of Greenwood, and all those stalks represent a tremendous reservoir of potential raw material for conversion to energy.”

Mississippi ranks number 1 in the U.S. in available biomass, Miller notes, and other states also have abundant material that could be used for energy production.

The equipment that makes this possible is called a gasifier, and while the gasification process is nothing new, the APA equipment represents “an extraordinary technical breakthrough,” says Mark Loftin, the company's vice president/counsel of intellectual property and chief engineering officer.

Loftin, a Mobile, Ala., native who worked in California for 15 years as a process engineer and consultant to the oil and gas industry before getting his law degree, specializing in patent law, and returning to Mobile, says, “I looked at this company and saw the potential for amazing things.”

To get an affordable 1 megawatt to 3 megawatt output from gasification “required a totally new approach,” he says.

The brains behind that new approach is Deon Potgieter, APA president and chief scientist.

Loftin says, “Deon looked at the problems that have surrounded gasification for decades and asked, ‘Why are these materials hard to gasify, and what will it take to make them easy to gasify?’ He developed this configuration, and it worked the first time.

“There's no equipment in the world like it,” Loftin says of the APA gasifier. “It's very clean-burning, no smoke, no soot, no odors. It can produce over 1 million Btu per hour, with 99 percent combustion efficiency.”

In a test in early August, using hard wood chips, the output was 1.2 million Btu from 260 pounds of chips per hour. Waste is minimal: from 1,400 pounds of chips, there remained only 11 pounds of very clean ash.

The first APA gasifier is slated for delivery any day now to a brick-making operation in Alabama.

“There's a lot of interest in this system by the brick industry,” Loftin says. “Their manufacturing process requires tremendous amounts of heat, and our equipment is expected to operate at a fraction of what they're paying for natural gas.”

Louisiana sugar mills have also expressed interest, he says. “One of those mills can burn $1 million per year in natural gas. The sugarcane waste, bagasse, could be used as feedstock.

“At the same time they're using agricultural wastes to generate heat, they're helping resolve an environmental problem by eliminating that waste,” Loftin says.

Poultry houses, cotton gins, and other operations requiring large amounts of heat, and which have ready supplies of waste material, could also use the equipment. Large cotton gins can pay $75,000 to $100,000 per month for energy during the ginning season.

Producing energy from agricultural waste can be a way to add value to farming operations, says Bobby Miller.

“With cotton stalks, for example, the farmer could eliminate the labor and expense of stalk-cutting. The job could be done for him and he could get a bit of income on top of that.”

The challenge, he says, has been to design equipment that will cut stalks and efficiently collect them for moduling or baling. “Area farmers are working with us on that.”

As APA gears up for immediate production and marketing of the gasifier, it's also looking to early 2006, when it will begin full-scale trials of its other precedent-setting product, the Rotary Hydrogen Burner (RHB).

“We're making refinements now with an engineering company, Mohawk Innovative Technology, in New York,” Loftin says.

The equipment utilizes hydrogen and water to combust oils — soybean, cottonseed, and other heavy oils work well — and generate large amounts of heat.

“It takes very little hydrogen to operate the equipment,” Loftin says, “and we calculate it takes 20 cents per hour of electricity to make the hydrogen.”

Clients in the Greenwood area will install the equipment for testing and data generation and general availability is expected next summer.

“There are many commercial businesses and industries that have a need for equipment to generate 20 million to 30 million Btu per hour,” Loftin says. “The RHB can do that very effectively, and more cheaply than with conventional energy sources.”

The hydrogen burner and the gasifier can be combined to add versatility in heat generation operations, he notes. The gasifier units can also be stacked in multiples to increase heat output.

“We have laboratory facilities to design systems to fit the individual user's needs,” he says.

In addition to a less expensive, more efficient way to generate energy, Billy F. Hopper, a Greenwood area farmer and APA's chief executive officer, said, “We see this as an opportunity to add value to farming operations by utilizing crop trash and agricultural/forestry byproducts.

“And there may be opportunities for growing specific biomass crops, including willow and other tree species.” Hopper, who has grown a number of vegetable crops over the years, says, “We're also looking at the potential for brown mustard seed production in the South; it's a crop with a very high oil content, about 40 percent by weight, that could be used in the Rotary Hydrogen Burner. It's grown in the Midwest, but we want to do some research to see if it can be a viable crop in the Delta.

“If so, it could be grown not only for oil, but the stalks that are left after harvest could be potential fuel for the gasifier.”

Hopper says the APA team of scientists and engineers believe the equipment they have developed will make an important contribution to helping to meet future energy needs while utilizing agricultural and forestry wastes to generate new sources of income.

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