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Biomass plant still on track

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

Despite problems with the system to feed it, the University of Minnesota, Morris' biomass burner should be ready to heat the campus this fall.

Lowell Rasmussen, Associate Vice Chancellor for Master Planning and Finance, said the first trial burns are expected to begin next week.

An "infeed piston" that will move biomass into the burner was binding and has been torn apart and rebuilt, Rasmussen said.

"This is the break-in on all aspects of the plant," Rasmussen said. "Just like breaking in a new car. Everything is new, and it will take a few weeks, even optimistically, to work out all the kinks and tweak things. Our goal is to be ready to run for the fall heating season."

Construction on the project began in July 2007. The facility will serve as a research platform for UMM's partners to identify trade-offs and opportunities surrounding gasifying other agricultural residues. The UMM/West Central Research and Outreach Center and the USDA Agricultural Research Service - North Central Soil Conservation Research Lab are involved in the $9 million project.

The biomass burner will convert corn stalks and other residual materials into a "syngas," similar to natural gas, that can be burned to produce clean energy to generate steam heat -- and cooling in the future -- for the campus.

After the trials begin, the university also must complete permitting requirements for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Rasmussen said.

"We look at the next six weeks as a time to get these things done," he said. "This is not really setting us back."

UMM's plant is next to the campus' existing heating and cooling facility. The 2,000 square foot addition will be about the size of a rambler-style home.

Once in full operation, the biomass plant is expected to produce more than 80 percent of the campus' heating and cooling. That's in addition to the wind turbine at the West Central Research and Outreach Center producing half of UMM's electrical needs.

Corn stover burns cleaner than coal and is about equal to natural gas. Stover also is "carbon neutral," which reduces air pollution compared to burning coal or gas.

The project also calls for the integration of a "steam absorption chiller" that will eventually aid in cooling campus buildings, as well, Rasmussen said.

"It sounds strange to use steam to cool water, but the operating system is actually very efficient," he said.

The plant is small by industry standards since it is a demonstration platform. The plant will burn about 9,000 tons of stover per year, and it will add in research already being done by WCROC and Soils Lab scientists.

Within a year or two, the UMM biomass facility should have produced enough data to determine which areas of the country it's viable to operate such a system, Rasmussen has said.