You'll be happy to know that the future is as bright and shiny as you'd hoped.
As incongruous and unlikely as it may sound, for the last six months the future has been housed in a small R&D company on the outskirts of Greenwood, Miss., a spit away from cotton fields. The location for the new 10,000-square-foot facility was not chosen by accident.
Right now, the future is disassembled and sitting on a folding table confined by the clean, white floors and walls of a laboratory. It looks like a squat axle polished to a mirrored shine, catching and reflecting light like a disco ball. Properly termed a Rhino Renewable Rotary Hydrogen Burner (RHB) it is, perhaps, two or three feet long, as big around as a medium-sized pizza and has cost over $1 million to develop. Preparing the future has not been cheap.
Perhaps 40 yards away, perched on a concrete slab outside bay doors is the RHB's bigger brother, a “Test Bed.” This is a new type of gasifier (all will be explained), a 10-foot tall tangle of silver tubes and cubes. The machine, which had a development cost many times that of the RHB, will soon add its final component: a swiveling apparatus that will spew a clean, blue flame into the Delta humidity.
It would be justified, but there is no pretension here. Other than a sign bathed in soft, cathode blue light, there is nothing to distinguish Associated Physics of America (APA) from businesses around it. But it is in this location that the future rests in the hands of only a few men: a couple of sharp, former farmers, a friendly businessman or two and, most importantly, a brilliant researcher named Deon Potgieter. This handful of men has a plan for the future; a plan that just might revitalize the Delta.
Put simply, APA wants to take renewable energy production to a level unimagined before. For a price, they will latch a new-fangled RHB onto an industrial boiler and instantly save the proud, new owner big money on his natural gas bill.
Farmers will be a major player in this new enterprise because “biomass” is needed to feed both the RHB and the Test Bed — raw seed oils, waste stream oils, forest residue, industrial waste such as sawdust and black liquor, and dedicated energy crops like kenaf and industrial brown mustard seed oil. But what APA really likes to stuff into its unit's gullet is crop trash — especially cotton stalks.
“Do you realize that roughly 140 pounds of cotton stalks has an energy value of 1 million BTUs?” asks Deon. “Our state has the largest concentration of value added agricultural biomass in the country and we're just tossing that energy to the side, allowing it to rot away while we pay higher and higher prices for natural gas.”
The quote above typifies Deon's cheerleading patter regarding his adopted state of Mississippi. While hailing from South Africa (once you catch the cadence of his words, the accent isn't a bother), Deon speaks unceasingly of the state's promise and untapped potential. He also knows the importance of a joke and a good feed to the local populace.
“I found out a lot of people in this state do business sitting on a tailgate having catfish and iced tea. I love that idea.”
Deon, sporting a longish goatee and buzzed scalp, has the broad shoulders and bearing of a fullback. Physically, he is the antithesis of the nerdy scientist. But precisely like the stereotype, he is absolutely brilliant. Now 33, he has been concentrating on hydrogen research for almost six years. If you shake his hand, it's likely you'll go to your grave never having met anyone more genius.
He keeps up the rah-rah. “After cotton harvest, there are close to a million acres of stalks in a 100-mile radius of Greenwood never mind the surrounding states. What happens? Farmers plow the stalks under, shred them, whatever. No one is taking advantage of this resource and that is madness!”
A farmer is driving
Although APA wants to focus on the good their machines will bring to agriculture (including poultry houses, where smaller gasification heating systems powered by chicken litter would seem to be an obvious fit), the benefits would be broader based. Applications for both the RHB and the Test Bed can be found throughout the industrial landscape.
At the request of the Mississippi Land, Water and Timber Resources Board, Dr. John Plodinec, director of the Diagnostic Instrumentation and Analysis Laboratory (DIAL) at Mississippi State University, recently reviewed APA's RHB. Among other things, Plodinec concluded: “The potential market base for the RHB is huge. Probably the single largest market is the industrial boiler market. In this case, replacing a conventional burner with one that burns vegetable or cotton seed oil reliably would have a rapid return on investment (probably months). Another huge market might be found in the high-temperature industries (glass, metals) that now use natural gas burners. In this case, the required performance from the burner would be more stringent but again the payback could be very rapid. In addition, burners are utilized in the production of many industrial chemicals.”
In the face of such expansive (and still expanding) boundaries, all APA employees claim they are committed to agriculture first. However, with companies wanting APA to study how their products might integrate, opportunities aren't lacking. Many are wanting in: Thompson Power & Thompson Machinery is shipping a Cat/Olympian generator set from Ireland for APA to do in-house research with and a small army of industry reps have trekked to the 7-acre plot on Highway 82 just east of town. Still, one gets the feeling that while any industry contact will be a welcome hitchhiker on the company bus a farmer will still be driving.
“People should know that we are absolutely committed to agriculture. That is our focus. We want to bring something good to the Delta farmer and we're going to,” says APA's financial manager Bobby Miller, a man with a bevy of farming credentials. Miller was 1997's Mississippi Farmer of the year and is former president of the Mississippi Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation.
Plodinec's report in hand, the Mississippi resources board recently gave APA a contingent grant that is being used to finalize the company's offerings. In giving the grant, say APA employees, it was clear the state was pinning high hopes that quick dividends would come to Mississippi farmers.
“With the RHB having been through several technical reviews and endurance tests, the time has come for us to automate the system,” says Billy Hopper, APA's business manager. “Seeing that the RHB can only use gaseous and/or liquid feedstock, it seemed logical to incorporate the Test Bed gasification system. The resulting unit can now make use of most fuel sources regardless of their physical properties.”
“The first thing we realized was that the system had a great potential within agriculture — especially as agriculture related to energy,” adds Deon. “But we had absolutely no way to take it further into the marketplace without automating the system. That's where the grant from the state of Mississippi comes in. We're sending the machine to DIAL labs at Mississippi State University for that. They'll hook up an electronics system to it so the user can just press a ‘start’ button and the machine will begin working.”
The grant period is for a year and patents are pending. It should take DIAL a few months to get the automation done. From there, APA will take possession of the system and begin running a formal test schedule. Once the tests are passed and patents confirmed, the unit would be placed in an industrial application.
Breaking it down
The gasification process is relatively simple — the user is just trying to get a ‘synthesis’ gas.
“When you heat something up, in the absence of oxygen — or at least a controlled amount of it — it can't burn,” says Deon. “While it can't burn, it can break down into ‘other stuff’ — the constituent gases. Take wood chips, for instance. Wood chips break down to carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrogen and some methane — this is your synthesis gas.”
Synthesis gas is pretty much the same thing as natural gas except it has a much lower density. That means more must be burned to get the same BTU's as natural gas. But synthesis gas has several plus points: it's obviously a lot less expensive than natural gas and it allows one to make use of renewable biomass feed stocks.
At this point, Deon wants his views about the both the RHB and the Test Bed's relationship to agriculture on the record.
“Land which is viable to farm on needs to be used for growing food,” he says. “We shouldn't see people farming to provide feed stocks for any gasifier. It would be in everyone's best interest to concentrate on value-added agriculture. That would be the premise by which everyone would gain from this. Rather than concentrate on a specific crop to derive energy, we should still grow food and then use every bit of the plant. To have people go and grow crops simply for the energy values would push up food prices. Pretty soon, everyone would be paying more than they should be for food. I have seen truly hungry people. I've seen what drought and mismanagement can do to a people. I don't want to see less food grown because of our or anyone else's machines.”
Regardless, he insists, Mississippi doesn't need to push more land into energy crops. “With the crops already being grown, there are so many opportunities as it is,” says Deon. “Why should we upset the balance?”
As an example, he points to juvenile pine, a big problem in the state but potentially excellent fuel for APA's combined RHB gasification system.
“Someone should just say, ‘Let us concentrate on how to formulate an inexpensive and reliable design for the flow of using this pine as an energy source.’ But no one is doing that now,” says Deon. “(Mississippi Agriculture) Commissioner Lester Spell has asked for that research to be done previously. No one saw a profit in it, though, and so it was left alone. Both the RHB and the Test Bed should now turn the tide.”
Spell, says Deon, gets it. “Dr. Spell, in my opinion, is the only commissioner of agriculture that takes renewable energy, especially as it relates to agriculture, seriously. For him value added agriculture is not just a punch line.”
APA envisions subcontractors collecting field trash, paying farmers for the privilege, and then delivering the biomass wherever it's needed. Such work would provide new, much-needed revenue in the Delta.
“By doing this it creates employment that will help our community, our state. This will benefit local economies. We're trying to generate income for farmers but also create employment for Delta residents. This is a win/win for everyone,” says Miller. “And it needs to be understood that APA isn't interested in becoming an industry unto ourselves.”
Deon makes the same point. “APA is a R&D organization. We are not going to be building gasification systems, and then planting them all over the United States. What we want to do is partner with industry — especially people who make use of natural gas. By going with one of our systems they can complement their natural gas with synthesis gas derived from value added agricultural byproducts and/or waste. They can keep their natural gas lines and use it as an equalizer.”
How could this work in the real world?
“Take company ABC down the road, here,” says Deon. “They have two 25 Mmbtu boilers which cost a little bit more than $100,000 each, per month to run on natural gas. That's a lot of money. This is the type of company that can be helped by way of these kinds of systems.
“The first thing is ABC will keep their boilers and their natural gas line. What will happen is, after they install (our) system and connect it to their boilers, they'll have choices. Diversity in feedstock relates to choices in energy, and those choices will save them so much money they'll have no choice but to be happy.”
The boiler's burner would be replaced with a Rotary Hydrogen Burner.
Billy Hopper explains: “The RHB alone already allows for the boiler to make use of non-conventional fuels such as raw vegetable oil. In the case of raw oils, which are usually co-fired with natural gas, the system saves money by not having to pre-heat the raw oils, and by being able to use the raw oil to its full potential without having to co-fire it with a fossil based fuel.”
The RHB makes use of only a small amount of hydrogen to simulate the correct co-fire environment, and liberates said gas by way of incorporated subsystems.
“When the RHB is coupled to a gasifier such as our Test Bed unit,” continues Deon, “it literally becomes the epitome of both diversity and choice. The system can now make use of solids, liquids and gaseous forms of fuel.”
As a result, the ABC company may be situated in the middle of a cotton growing area and as such would want to take advantage of cotton stalks when picking season starts. Juvenile pine may be the logistical choice for other areas, or even chicken litter. Diversity in feedstock is the key, says Deon.
Microwave induced plasma gasification, a subsystem to the Test Bed gasifier, also allows for waste stream feedstock (such as sawdust) and non-sorted municipal solid waste to be used.
“ABC would be able to choose the subsystems which best suit their needs, no more, no less. We can do this because of the modular nature of our systems,” he says.
Tom Kennen, APA's logistics manager, has formulated several scenarios in which a company such as ABC can make use of these systems. “Our 1MW/thermal unit fits inside of a 100-inch cube, which means that space is not a problem. The low density of biomass feedstock is a different horse, however, and as such would require the end user to be no further than 120 miles from its source. For ABC in Greenwood, Miss., this would not be an issue. For an ABC in the middle of the desert, yes, it becomes a logistical nightmare.”
Miller says that in 99 percent of the applications and scenarios that have been studied by APA and outside analysts, companies achieve a “much” healthier bottom line having used the gasifier instead of continuing with straight natural gas.
Furthermore, by using the APA's environmentally friendly system, a company is able to make use of federal and state tax credits and the like. There are many such incentives, says Miller (see sidebar).
The bigger brother
The Test Bed is a research breakthrough and consists of two gasifiers, one beside the other. Inside of the squared off sections is a cylindrical space for large, alumina silica ‘donuts’ — each weighing 200 pounds per cubic foot and capable of withstanding extremely high temperatures. Around the components are repeated bolt patterns that allow easy manipulation and configurations of the machine — like working with massive, expensive, silver Lego's. It is the ability to configure the machine that will draw in researchers.
“We can take one piece and put it atop another, turn it around, upside down, make a part shorter, longer, whatever,” says Deon. “This makes it extremely unique as it applies to R&D. It is our opinion that this ability makes it the best opportunity for gasification research in the whole of the United States. That's fitting because of the biomass potential within the state of Mississippi.”
When one does gasification research, it's normally on a single configuration. Any system relates to a particular feed stock and is set up to deal only with that — it can be manipulated for nothing else. For example, the set-up of a system can be any one of the following: a downdraft, an updraft, cross-draft, moving or stationary bed, low or high pressure, indirectly or directly heated, fluidized bed and/or a couple of others. Each of these has a preference for the type of feed stock they make use of. Some gasifiers are also better suited for certain user applications.
“Fluidized beds are perfect for large scale industrial applications — they have good efficiency but are expensive,” says Deon. “Down-draft systems work well for internal or compressive combustion engines like diesel generators.”
Regardless, the problem in research is that when a gasifier works only with a particular feed stock, then the researcher is stuck. It will cost a lot of money to go from one design to another. A researcher can't wake up one morning and say, “Today, I want to work on a gasifier with a fluidized bed and tomorrow an updraft.” That would cost far too much money.
But, APA has figured out how to build the giant Lego's. With their Test Bed, it's simply a case of sliding in a new section at the appropriate juncture.
“It's exciting because we can do all the tests on the same equipment in real-time with real, hard data,” says Deon. “That will benefit every researcher who might want to test some new theory or something.”
As always, Deon moves back to agriculture. “Too many researchers are fixated on bells and whistles that agriculture has no interest in. Ag wants something that's reliable, sturdy, inexpensive, and easy to use. We will provide it.”
So rest easy. The future is bright and shiny.
(Editor's note: for more information on APA, visit http://rhino-renewable.com)