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The biomass gasification facility at UMM.

The $9 million biomass gasification facility at the University of Minnesota, Morris officially opened on October 3.

From field to furnace

Researchers at the U's West Central Research and Outreach Center chart a path to a green community

By Sara Specht

Do you know how much it costs to buy and transport 1,700 tons of corn stover? Neither did anyone else a year ago. But in the past several months, University of Minnesota alum Joel Tallaksen of the West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC) has had to figure that out to prepare for last Friday's launch of the new $9 million biomass gasification facility on the Morris campus.

The answer? About $54 per ton, though with fuel prices on the rise, Tallaksen predicts next year's supply might be closer to $65 per ton.

Almost three years ago, the Minnesota Legislature approved a bonding bill that allocated $6 million to construct a biomass gasification demonstration and research facility at the University of Minnesota, Morris (UMM). This fall, the facility is beginning to burn a wide variety of biomass including corn stalks and small grain straw to provide more than 80 percent of the campus's heating and cooling needs. By next spring the campus hopes to have designed and installed an absorption chiller into the gasification unit to power the campus air conditioners. Additional modifications will enable the facility to generate electricity from the steam of both heating and cooling systems for use on campus or for external sale. "We're using the campus as a community model," says Tallaksen. Biomass sources do not produce greenhouse gases and emit fewer pollutants than traditional fuel sources such as coal, oil, and wood. So, the plant will replace most of the natural gas the campus uses, and the three-and-a-half year old wind turbine will fill the electricity needs. Only a mile from the Morris campus, the 367-foot turbine supplies half the electricity for the campus and its 2,000 students.

"We think we can make the [campus] carbon neutral or even carbon negative within a couple of years," he adds.

Watch a video on how the biomass facility is changing the University of Minnesota, Morris and its surrounding community or listen to an audio clip.

Unlike most industrial gasifiers, the one installed at UMM can process a wide variety of biomass feedstocks at much lower quantities. Furthermore, most gasifiers are created for a specific type of biomass and are unable to switch from one to another. The WCROC plans to work with UMM and with the College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences on the Twin Cities campus to create a curriculum based on the plant's research. The facility, however, has already become a resource for industry professionals, many of whom toured the plant prior to its October 3 launch.

"Gasification is a fairly old technology, as is using biomass," says Tallaksen. "What we don't know is how to make this work so everyone does it sustainably with some profit. These issues are much bigger than a lot of people outside the industry think, and all the variables from field to facility [aren't mapped out]."

Joel Tallaksen
Biomass gasification coordinator Joel Tallaksen examines air filter monitors that measure possible pollutants in exhaust from the new facility.

The major factor in accomplishing all this, Tallaksen has found, is in utilizing the resources at hand. Western Minnesota has plenty of wind and agricultural biomass, so the Morris system makes a good model for the state. But transportation costs quickly offset profits, so the closer the biomass the better. The WCROC facility contracted most of its corn stover from within 15 miles of campus.

"We're replacing about $900,000 of natural gas with biomass, and all that money will be spent in the local community," Tallaksen says. According to the Department of Energy, increased demand for production and processing of biomass will not only support traditional U.S. commodities such as corn, it will create new cash crops for America's farmers and foresters, as well as encourage better use of agricultural and forestry residues.

"By integrating these different systems [biomass and wind energy], we think we can make our community healthy and energy self-sufficient," he adds. "That's the ultimate goal."

Learn more about the biomass project at UMM.