Is biomass gasification an energy Cinderella story

August 17, 2009
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Biomass just doesn't get any respect, in the opinion of Bruce Goodman, a partner at Varnum.

Biomass — stuff such as wood, grass clippings, corn stalks, turkey droppings, cow manure, landfill garbage, belly button lint — has energy in it and there are various ways to extract it. But biomass doesn't get nearly as much ink as wind and solar energy.

Goodman, who practices law involving environmental, energy and construction issues, said people generally don't even think of biomass when the talk is about alternative energy.

"Talking about waste is never glamorous," he said. Talk about turkey litter and manure digesters just doesn't give people a warm fuzzy feeling like talking about wind turbines spinning in the sky and solar panels soaking up the rays.

But biomass has "really leapfrogged over solar and wind energy when you consider the economics," said Goodman. "Both solar and wind currently need and are receiving economic incentives. The economics for biomass, however, make it economically viable on its own."

Don't get him wrong: He's not knocking wind or solar. Some of his clients are involved with wind and solar energy projects. It's just that the public doesn't seem to realize the potential in biomass energy.

Goodman is no neophyte. He's been practicing law since 1979 and was involved in alternative energy projects going back to the mid-1980s. He really likes biomass gasification, a process in which a bunch of biomass is essentially "cooked" without oxygen, which forces gas out of it that can then be captured and burned to generate electricity or make steam.

Gasification is anything but new. A hundred years ago, cities all over America were burning coal gas in their street lights. Coal gas comes from putting coal through the gasification process.

"What is new is the ability to do it more and more efficiently," said Goodman. Advances in metallurgy and engineering technology are going to make biomass gasification a big splash here in West Michigan very soon, he said.

Goodman said he understands that a gasification facility can be built to generate electricity at lower cost than wind or solar technology. Everybody's tuned in to wind turbines and solar panels, but "biomass is really going to fool people," said Goodman.

Customizing a future

In business it’s good to diversify, and what makes more sense than a Web and marketing development company diversifying into furniture?

Spearia, whose building expansion is examined in this issue’s Commercial Quarterly, is embarking on an adventure into the realm of furniture, but, in typical Spearia form, it’s furniture with a twist. People will be able to upload pictures of their office or home space to a Web site where designers will drop in pieces of furniture. Depending on how the furniture is received, Spearia will collaborate with a manufacturer to produce the furniture.

Danny Beckett, owner of Spearia, plans to launch the basic Web site in the next few months with a full-service site to be completed by mid-2010.

Navigating through clouds

The West Michigan Technology Association will present a technology update on Thursday at ITT Technical Institute. This month’s meeting will focus on “Cloud Computing” — which is evidently creating quite a buzz in industry publications and at tradeshow events.

“WMTA is thrilled to welcome internationally renowned speaker Jim VanderMey, chief technology officer at Open System Technologies Inc.,” said Catherine Lazarock, president of Symplicity Communications Inc. in Grand Rapids.

“Jim has served as VP of technical operations for OST since its beginning,” Lazarock said. “He is a technology visionary who sets the long- and short-term direction for OST. He specializes in seeing the ‘big picture’ of technology, the computer industry and the business objectives supported by IT. As OST has gained an international reputation, Jim has taught and spoken at conferences in Europe, Japan and throughout the U.S.”

VanderMey attended the Grand Rapids School of Bible and Music as a pastoral ministries major, and went on to manage large scale applications running on UNIX and Windows for health care, manufacturing and insurance industries. He has served as a consultant to many large organizations such as Herman Miller, Boeing, Priority Health, Magna-Donnelly Corp., Hewlett Packard, Komatsu, Alticor, Navistar (International Truck), the U.S. Navy, Mercedes, Targus and Bio-Rad.

Thursday’s event will take place at ITT Technical Institute, 1980 Metro Court SW in Wyoming, from 11:45 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Lunch will be sponsored by OST and is included in the price of attendance. As a member or first-time guest of WMTA, the meeting will be free of charge. Guests who have attended a meeting prior to this event pay $15. To RSVP, e-mail sgorton@symplicitycom.com. Visit www.wmta.biz for more information.

Local designer goes national

The Association of Professional Design Firms has appointed Kevin Budelmann, president of People Design Inc. in Grand Rapids, to its national board of directors. APDF is a nonprofit organization with more than 100 leading design member firms in the U.S. and Canada. Its mission is to elevate the standards of professional business practices among design firms through education and the exchange of knowledge.

It’s not too hard to figure out the appointment is a testament to Budelmann’s cross-disciplinary approach to running a successful strategic design consultancy for 12 years.

"My involvement in APDF enables more peer access to other design firm owners and best practices across the U.S. and Canada," Budelmann said in a news release. "It will help us further our experience design methodology on a national level."

APDF has gained recognition for networking and information sharing, thereby helping member firms improve performance through better internal management and best practices. APDF aims to gain greater recognition for the role the design consultant plays in achieving the goals of business and society.

The increased interest in design innovation among business leaders has resulted in a growing presence of design organizations around the world, including AIGA, in which Budelmann also serves as local chapter president, IDSA (similar to AIGA but focused on product design), DMI (Design Management Institute, which caters to in-house design groups), and DWM (Design West Michigan, a regional cross-disciplinary design effort). APDF cites alliances with many of these organizations, but distinguishes itself by being a smaller group catering specifically to design firm leaders — the business of design.

APDF will celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2010. Budelmann will serve as the brand and social media marketing chair, and will help chart a future course for design firm leaders.

Life sciences summit set

The West Michigan Science & Technology Initiative’s fall seminar Sept. 17 at Grand Valley State University’s Loosemore Auditorium will focus on current opportunities in the life sciences industry.  SUMmIT 2009: Drugs, Diagnostics and Devices is a half-day seminar focusing on the advances and technology trends in drug development, medical diagnostics and medical devices.

Speakers include: Daniel H. Farkas, laboratory director for the Sequenom Center for Molecular Medicine speaking on the current and future technology trends in diagnostics; Mike DeVries, managing director with Ann Arbor-based EDF Ventures, who will provide a unique perspective on current technology trends in the medical device industry, and Shawn Shirazi, senior director of formulation research and development for Perrigo Co. who has nearly 20 years of experience in the pharmaceutical industry and will provide insight into the global outlook for drug development.

Following the three presentations, the seminar will conclude with a panel discussion on the current state of the life sciences product development environment, featuring experts on regulatory affairs, insurance and health care compliance.

The cost to attend is $50 and includes continental breakfast and a networking lunch. To register, go to www.wmsti.org and click on the “events” tab.

Mattawan gets project

Grand opening ceremonies for McGillen’s Crossing in the village of Mattawan, west of Kalamazoo, will be held Aug. 25 with guest speaker Ron Kitchens, CEO Southwest Michigan First.

Developed by Powell Commercial Holdings, McGillen’s Crossing is a 50-acre project composed of commercial building sites intended for retail shops, restaurants and offices, in addition to a new condominium community. The development is adjacent to the growing MPI Research and east of Mattawan Consolidated Schools.

The Shops and Restaurants of McGillen’s Crossing is dedicated to commercial units available for purchase in addition to leasing options. Composed of 28 individual commercial building sites, the development’s first occupant, Medicine Tree Pharmacy, is scheduled to open the end of August. Consumers Credit Union will open there soon.

The Condos at McGillen’s Crossing will have 123 condominium homes within walking distance to area shops and restaurants. Condo construction by Powell Custom Homes will begin in the fall.

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