By Kim Ukura on Sep 24, 2011

MORRIS — Minnesota Department of Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman visited the West Central Research and Outreach Center and the biomass facility at the University of Minnesota, Morris, as part of a state-wide tour of Minnesota’s clean energy marketplace and infrastructure.
Thursday’s tour included a look at the WCROC’s solar heating and cooling systems, the renewable hydrogen and ammonia pilot plant and the biomass gasification system at UMM.

The purpose of the visit was “learning what the future can be in the days ahead” and “how to find ways to make that work,” explained Rothman. “My role is to work, understand and collaborate on ways we can help, and be open to hearing what the challenges are and what the opportunities are to help folks here,” he said. Rothman was joined on the visit by Deputy Commissioner Bill Grant, staff member Peter Brickwedde and State Representative Torrey Westrom.

After a brief discussion at the WCROC building, the tour headed outside where Renewable Energy Scientist Eric Buchanan discussed the evaporated solar tube system that is being used to both heat and cool the addition to the WCROC.

The second stop on the tour was the WCROC’s wind to hydrogen to ammonia pilot plant. Junior Scientist Cory Marquart showed how wind energy is used to electrolyze water, which creates hydrogen, effectively “storing” wind energy for future use.

The WCROC is also exploring ways to create products from wind energy and hydrogen. One project, not quite underway yet, is an anhydrous ammonia plant that, when fully operational, could produce enough ammonia to fertilize 300 acres of farm land. Mike Reese, director of renewable energy, said it would take about 20 wind turbines worth of power to produce enough anhydrous ammonia for all the farmland in Stevens County. Currently, fertilizer is imported, so this technology could be a step to locally-produced fertilizer. Westrom also suggested looking to the possibility of locally-owned wind farms that would produce ammonia during off-peak energy hours that farmers could use.

“Wind is a huge resource,” Rothman said. “We have to continue to make progress on harnessing it. Here at the WCROC and Morris we see the cutting edge of the technology of the future to use wind.”

After leaving the WCROC, the tour headed to campus to see the biomass facility, which is up and running using wood chips for fuel, reflecting a lesser-known challenge in working with a biomass facility: where does the biomass material come from? “It’s kind of an afterthought, where this biomass comes from,” said Assistant Scientist Joel Tallaksen. Tallaksen has spent time studying the life cycle of biomass products as well as the supply chain issues of getting biomass materials from the farm to the facility.

Another challenge is the economics of providing biomass materials and whether it makes sense for farmers to switch field crops. The wood currently powering the biomass facility had to be shipped in, but the facility is working out a contract with a farmer to supply corn cobs once the harvest is collected.

On the day of the tour, the biomass facility was producing enough energy to power the entire Morris campus, said Jim Barbour, junior scientist. On an average day, Barbour said about 70 percent of the campus’ thermal energy would be coming from biomass.

Upcoming stops on Rothman’s tour include stops at Silicon Energy and Laurentian Energy Authority in Mountain Iron, Minn.; the Duluth Port Authority and Minnesota Power in Duluth, Minn.; and Minnesota Power and Great River Energy in Maple Grove, Minn.

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