Minnesota county studies feasibility of plasma gasification project

By Bryan Sims
Web exclusive posted June 27, 2008 at 12:01 p.m. CST

As a means for converting its municipal solid waste (MSW) into value-added renewable products, the small town of International Falls, Minn., located in Koochiching County, has launched an extensive feasibility study for a proposed biomass waste-to-energy plasma gasification project.

The Renewable Energy Clean Air Project will utilize a plasma gasification technology to convert MSW into a renewable energy source, such as synthetic gas for use as steam or electricity.

According to Paul Nevanen, director of the Koochiching County Economic Development Authority in International Falls, Minn., the project has the backing and support of the USDA, U.S. DOE, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and venerable project developers and engineers aimed to help ascertain verifiable data that will subsequently be presented to Koochiching County board members. At press time, the study was still taking place. If considered, the project would be the first in North America to employ such a technology for biomass utilization, said Nevanen.

"There was a lot of financial motivation to look at some solutions and plus, philosophically, I think a number of our county commissioners thought it was time to look at some solutions to put something on the ground," he said.

Once the feasibility study is complete and if the county decides to proceed, the demonstration project would process over 100 tons of MSW daily using all of Koochiching County's waste, as well as similar waste materials gathered from neighboring counties. The county currently doesn't have a landfill. One possible use of the synthetic gas would be to supply steam and electricity to a paper mill operated by Boise Cascade in International Falls, Nevanen said.

According to Nevanen, the project's announcement came from county and government officials during a meeting at Rainy River Community College during a forum in which there was overwhelming support for the project's consortium approach to start with an extensive feasibility study, preliminary design work and then making the final decision to build the project.

The feasibility study will be independently reviewed by Seattle, Wash.-based engineering firm R.W. Beck. All aspects of the project, including environmental impacts, emissions, operational performance and economic viability will be assessed by R.W. Beck. The MPCA will oversee the study, which will be funded by the state of Minnesota.

Heading the preliminary design work for the gasification reactor and torch design will be Westinghouse Plasma Corp., the manufacturing company of the plasma torch that will be used for the project. Westinghouse, which holds expertise in plasma gasification technologies and is a provider of torches for similar commercial facilities in Japan, is owned by Alter Nrg, a firm based in Calgary, Ottawa, Canada.

The developer and project manager will be Coronal LLC. The principals of the company, John D. Howard III and Stephen W. Korstad, anticipate using the knowledge and system efficiencies learned from this demonstration project to build other new and larger projects in the U.S. and around the world.

"[The proposed project] has generated a lot of interest across the country," Nevanen said. "There are a lot of people watching this. Our hope is that the feasibility study will come back with a number of answers to questions that will give the county board enough confidence to move forward with it."