Gasification Creates Clean Energy, Economic Opportunities

A gasification technology developed for railroad ties will provide a clean way to dispose of the creosote-treated materials, and create jobs and energy for aboriginal communities.
By Lisa Gibson
Impoverished Native American communities in Canada, and maybe the U.S., will reap the benefits of a new gasification technology developed specifically for creosote-treated railroad ties. The Grand Forks, N.D.-based Energy & Environmental Research Center's technology was developed in partnership with Aboriginal Cogeneration Corp. to create jobs, clean energy and heat for aboriginal communities that have 85 percent to 90 percent unemployment rates.

ACC, headquartered in Winnipeg, Manitoba, tasked the EERC with the project because of its close proximity and research experience. ACC was established about three years ago to help create jobs in Indian communities, mainly in northern Canada, through the railroad tie project. Some of those communities are inaccessible by land most of the year.

Gasification of woody materials is not a new concept, but cleaning the creosote from the gas is a relatively new step in the process. Tri-Steel Manufacturing in Grand Forks is building two 1-megawatt units for ACC to operate in Kamloops, British Columbia, about three hours east of Vancouver. Those units should be up and running in August 2010, according to Kim Sigurdson, founder and part owner of ACC. ACC will expand the idea to other areas, focusing on Indian communities. The company has a 10-year contract with Canadian Pacific Railway (CP) for its supply of ties and is in discussions with several other railroad companies.

The �Cadillac' of Gasifiers
It will be about 10 months before the first gasifier is ready and shipped to Kamloops, Sigurdson says, but he is patient and grateful. "The EERC is finding out as they're going along, like everything else in life, they're finding new and better technologies to make this thing more efficient," he says. "We bought a Cadillac and now they're putting the extras in."

The technology is designed for chipped railroad ties, and EERC has been working on the variation of its gasification technology for about a year, according to Tom Erickson, associate director for research at EERC. Ties can be between 160 and 220 pounds each, depending on factors such as age and roughness. The chips are fed into the gasifier and the resulting gas, mostly hydrogen, is cleaned with scrubbers and put into the internal combustion engine, where the electricity is generated. EERC's innovation is generating enough heat to break up the coal tar molecules-creosote-reducing the strain on the scrubbers.

Creosote preserves the railroad ties, increasing longevity. But eventually they do wear out and need to be replaced. Burning that tar creates air pollution and burying it allows it to leach into the groundwater. "Our gasifier destroys as much of that as possible," Erickson says. "We have a unique geometry allowing for an increase in the residence time and temperature." The tar can gum up the combustion engine if it's not removed properly. "One of the keys is being able to produce a gas that will meet the guaranteed warranty of the engine," he says.

EERC's demonstration facility is a three-level system with grated floors. The loader extends from the third floor, where the chips are fed into the system by crane, down to the first floor. The wood chips are augured from the first level to the gasifier on the second level. The tall loader allows the system to run longer without the need for a refill of chips, Erickson says. Each commercial system might have differences in structure, he adds. EERC's demonstration equipment does not capture heat, but the products sent to Canada will, Erickson says. "We're working on just making sure the gasifier works correctly."

A 1-megawatt system will consume about 18 ties per hour, depending on weight, for a total of about 432 ties per day. The Kamloops location will receive a supply of between 250,000 and 500,000 ties per year from CP for the next 10 years. CP will deliver the ties to the Kamloops facilities and pay tippage to ACC.

EERC does not have a chipper on-site, but the Kamloops location has a grinder designed to stop when it hits a steel spike or plate, which are commonly found in railroad ties. An airbag will inflate, the tie will drop out the bottom and the machine carries on, Sigurdson says, after the airbag deflates.

The electricity produced in Kamloops will be sold to the local hydro company and used in the community, Sigurdson says, and the heat will be sold to the nearby Domtar pulp and paper mill for process heat. In addition, the potash can be sold as fertilizer.

Why Railroad Ties?
Sigurdson and his friend Bill Montour, a tribal chief in Ontario, had worked with CP on a previous project involving harvesting of unused telephone poles with the help of local natives. The CP CEO at that time, Rob Ritchie, was impressed with their work and he enlisted their help again when he had another idea to pursue. He wanted to develop a green project involving railroad ties, which usually are either chipped and sold as hog fuel to large cement companies, small energy companies and other organizations, or sent to landfills, Sigurdson says. CP disposes of about 1 million ties per year and railways all across Canada and the U.S. dispose of about 25 million per year.

"Bill and I and my wife (JoJo, who is part owner of ACC), being aboriginal and native, wanted to help out the tribes," Sigurdson says. EERC was the solution ACC sought. "Coming in with creosote ties was a bit of a challenge," he says. "And EERC took that challenge."

Surprise, It's Clean Too
The fact that the technology reduces the carbon footprint with fewer emissions than natural gas comes as a surprise to most people, Sigurdson says. "When you tell people that, they fall off their chairs," he says.

"The project is a win-win-win from CP's perspective," says Mike LoVecchio, senior manager of media relations at CP. "It reuses surplus materials no longer useful to the railroad. It is environmentally responsible. It creates new opportunities for our aboriginal neighbors." The project doesn't provide a cost savings to CP, according to LoVecchio, but the "triple win" is what attracted the company to it. "First and foremost, it'll take a material considered waste and use it," Erickson says.

It will mean much more to the local aboriginal communities. "Our mission statement is to provide jobs for Native Canadians/Native Americans and that's what we do," Sigurdson says. "And it's been a dream." Each location will create 20 to 25 well-paying jobs for locals, he says. The Kamloops site already has about nine employees, mostly native. "You have to get heavy equipment operators to take the ties off railway cars and we have a number of other large pieces of equipment that have to be handled by people who are certified and trained to do this," he says. "So we put them through the necessary safety courses and training courses. We have a couple of nonnative people who have expertise in areas we couldn't find from native people."

More than 130 tribes in northern Canada depend on diesel for power, but the logistics involved in getting that fuel to them are staggering. It's delivered over frozen lakes and winter roads 60 days out of the year, or by air. No railroads exist up there, but EERC's gasifier also can take forest woody biomass with little retrofitting. It can create heat and power for those remote communities, while bringing in an energy industry, Sigurdson says. "We've presented a business case to these natives that allows them to get away from the huge carbon footprint that they're leaving with diesel and quit being reliant on these fossil fuels," he says. "They're going to do selective forestry, and create some jobs. One of the most fantastic things about this, other than having a small carbon footprint and creating jobs that are needed, is the fact that the [existing] diesel generator can be refitted to take our syngas."

Because of the transportation problems in northern Canadian and Alaskan Native communities, food prices are also through the roof, making it difficult for families to get the nutrients they need. They are sometimes forced to buy cheaper, less healthy alternatives to foods such as fresh produce, Sigurdson says. EERC's gasification technology can help with that problem, too, he explains, by using forest woody biomass to produce heat for greenhouses. That not only would provide needed food, but also more jobs. "We're moving forward with that," he says. "We're getting lots of interest from communities up north. We're having such a great time with this. It started with railroad ties and is expanding."

Another advantage of EERC's microgasification technology is that it's somewhat mobile and can be set up close to the supply of railroad ties, Sigurdson says. "The biggest problem is the logistics of getting the ties to the location," he says. "We can put [the microgasifiers] almost anywhere, but our first hope and wish is to do it where Native American communities are nearby."

EERC Director Gerald Groenewold stressed the importance of the Grand Forks regional economy benefiting from the project, as well. "We made a covenant with Gerald that we would get as many of these built in Grand Forks as we can," Sigurdson says, adding that Tri-Steel Manufacturing has built systems for EERC in the past so they already have an understanding of the technology.

In the Works
Each facility will cost from $3 million to $5 million, Sigurdson says, depending on the size, location and what "bells and whistles" are necessary. Some locations will produce heat and electricity, whereas others might just produce one or the other, depending on the market. "In some precincts, more so in the U.S. than Canada, heat is king and that revenue stream will drive more money than the electricity part of it," he says. "So we're looking at different variations of the gasifier." ACC is funded by Canadian agencies and the U.S. DOE.

ACC has signed a letter of intent with Canada National Railway to supply ties for two more 1-megawatt facilities in Paris, Ontario. Details are yet to be worked out, but Canada National tentatively will deliver between 200,000 and 250,000 ties per year to the site, Sigurdson says. ACC also is in discussions with Union Pacific, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern Corp. railways. "We are engaged with every other Class 1 railway in the U.S. to provide them with the same green solution," he says.

ACC is also working with the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and is in discussions with Alaskan tribes and tribes all across the northern part of the U.S. to provide more jobs and energy using the gasification technology, Sigurdson says.

"The EERC is at the top of our list for finding native people a better way of living," he says. "It's changed our lives up here. If you would have told me a year ago we'd be doing this today, I would've laughed at you."

Lisa Gibson is a Biomass Magazine associate editor. Reach her at [email protected] or (701) 738-4952.