Minnesota county explores plasma gasification project

By Bryan Sims
Koochiching County, Minn., launched an extensive feasibility study in June for a proposed biomass-waste-to-energy plasma gasification project. If completed, the project would be the first in North America to employ such a technology for biomass utilization, according to Paul Nevanen, director of the Koochiching County Economic Development Authority in International Falls, Minn.

The project, called the Renewable Energy Clean Air Project, has the support of the USDA, the U.S. DOE and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. It has received funding from the state. The purpose of the project is aimed at utilizing a novel plasma gasification technology for the conversion of municipal solid waste (MSW) into a renewable energy source such as synthetic gas to replace steam or electricity.

All aspects of the project-environmental impacts, emissions, siting issues, input and output, technological and operational performance, and economic viability-will be assessed by Seattle-based engineering firm R.W. Beck, Nevanen said. "We've made some assumptions about how this might work with regard to tipping fees and revenue streams, but we want somebody to come and independently assess the plan as we've proposed it, as well as the performance of the technology," he said. The MPCA will be overseeing the feasibility study, which will be subsequently presented to Koochiching County board members once data is collected for final approval.

Westinghouse Plasma Corp. is heading the preliminary design for the gasification reactor and plasma torch. The company, owned by Canadian firm Alter Nrg, is experienced in plasma gasification technologies, providing torches for similar commercial facilities in Japan. It has signed up for a similar project with ethanol process technology company Coskata Inc. The developer and project manager for the Minnesota project is Coronal LLC.

If the county decides to proceed, the demonstration project would process more than 100 tons of MSW per day using all of Koochiching County's waste and waste from neighboring counties, which would be a boon for Koochiching County since it doesn't house a landfill to supply additional waste.

"[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."