Can Biomass Supply The Power

December 17, 2004
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MUSKEGON — Since its completion last year, Grand Valley State University’s Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center (MAREC) has operated on its own power and provided energy for a pair of start-up companies.

Now it is gearing up to add juice to the energy infrastructure that it has operated without.

In recent months, Imad Mahawali — MAREC’s executive director — has been working on a large-scale circuit of state agencies to facilitate funding to build a power plant that converts biomass to electricity.

“It’s going to be a reality as soon as the funding is established,” Mahawali said. “Hopefully it will be funded this coming year and construction will begin soon after. This is a very key and critical plan for the state of Michigan and for renewable energy using methane.”

Mahawali explained that once the grant he has drafted is underwritten, the facility should be operating within 18 months.

Within the plant, state-of-the-art “biodigesters” will convert biomass in the form of animal manure into methane gas, from which electricity can be created using micro-turbines and a fuel cell generator similar to the one that powers MAREC.

Likely housed in silos somewhere on Muskegon County’s sprawling wastewater treatment system on Apple Avenue, the facility will serve as a proof-of-concept demonstration project for the state of Michigan.

Just such a facility was part of the initial proposal for the wastewater system nearly 35 years ago. Concerns about energy alternatives didn’t come up on the environmental protection radar screen, however, until after the system was well under construction.

To be able to demonstrate the feasibility of the technology to Michigan’s farmers is of utmost importance, Mahawali explained, because his efforts are following those of many haphazard pioneers.

“The farmers are gun shy,” he said.

“There have been roughly 21 crude biogas plants in the state of Michigan — and they have all failed. That’s why I’ve spent so much time over the past year to put together this grant for a demonstration program.

“I’ve already met with some of the significant farm companies in the state of Michigan. The onus is on me to go ahead and execute.”

According to Mahawali, the earlier attempts all failed because they were built by farmers and agricultural engineers without chemical engineering expertise.

While many attempts created inefficient manure-filled lagoons and landfills, Mahawali, a chemical engineer himself, has worked with Muskegon-based consultants to plan computer-controlled reactors that would maintain temperature, pressure and other controls.

“The bioprocesses for converting methane gas to electricity is really a non-complicated process,” Mahawali said. “But it needs the same controls and the same care toward temperature and pressures and solid material transportation.”

While the lagoon-type technologies extract electricity at a rate of 10 percent to 15 percent, he contends that the approach he advocates could produce as much as 40 percent to 50 percent.

To build the facility, Mahawali has enlisted the aid of companies and scientists in California, Wisconsin, New York and especially Europe.

The construction of the facility would be done as a joint venture between local infrastructure and experts from Europe.

“I’ve spoken to scholars worldwide and found some very key technology builders from Europe, construction companies and biodigesters,” he said. “I would like to bring the best of them here to build it.”

In order to keep the project open to public interests, Mahawali believes that the project must be funded by state agencies.

“This needs to be available to our farm businesses so they can learn from it and hopefully duplicate it and learn its economics.”

In addition to plans for the biomass plant, Mahawali and MAREC staff have been hard at work on other fronts.

This September, a pair of classes will debut through MAREC: an advanced-level course on renewable energy offered at GVSU’s honors college, and applied technology certification in renewable energy through Muskegon Community College.

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