Renewafuel finishes biomass cube plant


Cliffs Natural Resources Inc. subsidiary Renewafuel LLC has completed construction of its first full-scale biomass cube production plant in Marquette, Mich., and is in the midst of starting up the facility.
Plans for the $19 million plant, which is located in the Telkite Technology Park at Sawyer Airport near Marquette, were announced in June 2008. Total construction time was about 10 months, according to Chairman Bill Brake. When fully operational, the plant will employ 25 people.

Biomass cubes may seem like an odd fit for Cliffs, which is more commonly known for being the largest producer of iron ore pellets in North America and a significant producer of metallurgical coal. But Brake said the company is uniquely suited to enter that market. “It’s right up our wheelhouse because we have the skill sets to collect, blend, aggregate, test and understand fuel,” he said. “It’s surprisingly analogous to what we do in the taconite mining business. While people may not think that biomass and iron ore pellets have much in common, we’ve found that they do.”

Renewafuel has been producing its biomass cubes for more than five years at a pilot plant in Battle Creek, Mich. The 1¼x1¼x2 inch cubes are a composite of wood and agricultural feedstocks, which the company sources from local loggers and farmers. “Depending on the furnace and the customer’s specific needs, the cubes may be blended with different biomass components and a couple of proprietary additives,” Brake said.

The cubes are primarily used as a cofiring option for large-scale coal-fired utilities, requiring little or no modifications to a facility. Brake said the fuel, which has about the same energy content as coal, is a good fit for developers working to permit new power facilities or expanding the capacity of existing facilities that are required to comply with stricter emissions regulations, or universities looking to decrease their carbon footprint.

Several months ago, Renewafuel announced a memorandum of understanding with FirstEnergy Corp. to supply First Energy’s R.E. Burger plant in Shadyside, Ohio, with fuel, but since then both parties have agreed to pursue other opportunities because the distance between the two plants (from upper Michigan to the Ohio River) proved to be uneconomical, Brake said. “Our rule of thumb is 150 miles to deliver, and 75 to source feedstock,” Brake said. “Our model is very much regional—from the collection to the processing and delivery of biomass.”

Brake said the company has been performing test burns for many utilities, adding that it is essential to understand how certain biomass cube blends perform in a specific power system. “What works best in a suspension-type pulverized coal boiler is not necessarily at all the same fuel that would work well in a traditional stoker bed,” he said.

Once the Marquette facility is in full production, the plant will use the cubes as fuel to heat its dryer instead of the natural gas it is currently using.

In the future, Renewafuel plans to build more plants, according to Brake. “We think this [biomass fuel] will become a megatrend not only in society, but legislatively as well.”