Trash into Treasure

North Dakota is fueling the development of biomass

by Julie L. Fedorchak

The adage that one man’s trash can be another’s treasure is gaining new meaning in Grand Forks, N.D., where researchers and private industry are working to turn industrial trash into treasured heat and electricity.

Darren Schmidt, research manager of the Energy & Environmental Research Center at the University of North Dakota, with wood waste from the Grand Forks Truss Plant in Grand Forks, N.D. The plant partnered with the EERC to launch a pilot biomass gasification power generation system. Photo courtesy of the EERC.
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In January, the Grand Forks Truss Plant partnered with the Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) at the University of North Dakota to launch a pilot biomass gasification power generation system that turns the plant’s sawdust and wood waste into combustible gas used to produce needed heat and electricity. The project, which is funded in part by the Department of Energy along with private investment, is the result of more than three years of direct research for the biomass gasifier and more than 60 years of gasification technology development at the EERC.

The Grand Forks Truss Plant, a building products manufacturer specializing in roof trusses, was the logical partner for the biomass gasification test project, according to Darren Schmidt, research manager at the EERC. “We approached the Truss Plant as a demonstration site because they represent the model of what we’re trying to do,” Schmidt said. “[The Truss Plant] creates waste products on site and the new process eliminates having to transport it anywhere by turning it into a more valuable product and using it right at the site.”

Each day, Grand Forks Truss Plant produces between four and six cubic yards of wood waste through its manufacturing process. Previously, disposing of the waste cost the plant money, while all of its power was taken directly from the local grid. The new biomass gasification project allows the plant to eliminate costs in both activities, while also providing an environmentally friendly disposal method.

The new biomass gasifier could mark strong progress toward a more efficient industrial process, according to Schmidt. “Over the years industrial plants have been faced with the challenge of how to best utilize waste products,” he said. “One of the best ways they can use them is to generate heat and power. And how do you do that on a small scale? By best utilizing a fuel resource,” in this case an abundant one, plant waste!

Carsten Heide, associate director for intellectual property management and technology commercialization at the EERC, sees the biomass technology being tested at the Grand Forks Truss Plant as potentially having a wide-ranging impact on energy producers. “Peak load demands require looking for solutions of how you can locally offset some of those peak loads. A system like this one that is small and nimble and can be put up quickly,” is one solution that can have ongoing value to producers dealing with peak load demands, said Heide.

In addition, the gasification technology being tested by the EERC could be helpful in emergency power generation systems around the country. Heide said, “Take Hurricane Katrina, where some people were without power for weeks. There was a lot of wood waste. You could chop it up and put it into the gasification system in the interim.” He also believes that the implementation of small scale gasifiers on major power grids has an added security benefit. “Distributed power has the advantage of being too numerous and too spread out to be attacked by terrorist groups.”

Energy innovations like the project at Grand Forks Truss Plant are common to North Dakota, a state that leads the nation in the production of 14 agricultural commodities, has the potential for more wind energy than any other state and is one of the top corn producers, which fuels the state’s growing ethanol industry. Since 2005, the state has invested more than $1.9 billion in alternative energy initiatives.

Kim Christianson, energy program manager at the North Dakota Department of Commerce, believes the state is a natural leader in the biomass movement.

“North Dakota has the greatest potential resource for switchgrass and other dedicated energy crops at a low market value,” Christianson said. “The energy market now is calling for renewable and affordable solutions, and the natural advantages of North Dakota put us in a really good position to develop these technologies and be able to offer them at a price that makes them viable.”

As a result of its natural advantages, the state is capitalizing on its brainpower, employing the state’s universities as a key driver in the renewable energy and biomass push. Gov. John Hoeven recently signed a variety of legislation to bolster the state’s standing in the biomass market, including a $2 million fund for demonstration projects related to growing, harvesting and delivering biomass energy crops.

“We have access to a tremendous amount of intellectual property in our university system, and we’re using it to power our energy industry,” Shane Goettle, commissioner of the North Dakota Department of Commerce, said.

“The EERC is a leader in biomass energy research and development especially in terms of small-scale biomass gasification,” Goettle said. “We have UND pacing the state’s development with large-scale research in the delivery of energy, and we have NDSU [North Dakota State University] performing world-class research on crop production and issues related to harvesting and delivering crops to the energy industry.”

Goettle said the state and its universities understand that the renewable energy movement is going to be a key driver of the economy for years to come. “We have the resources both in terms of people and product to help shape it,” he said.

Currently with more than 290 employees, the EERC is one of the pivotal organizations fueling the ongoing development of biomass and other alternative energy technologies with the potential to shape the energy revolution. The Department of Energy’s evaluation report calls the facility “one of the best-or the best-R&D facilities in the United States and the world.”

The Center currently has a contract portfolio totaling more than $120 million of private and public investment. In addition to wind, biodiesel, ethanol, advanced tactical fuels and hydrogen research, the EERC is evaluating potential sources of biomass including switchgrass, rice straw, agricultural residues, energy crops and municipal solid waste. The Center’s research includes assessing the potential market and availability of these biomass sources as well as conducting pilot and full-scale tests of cofiring biomass with coal and integrated biomass gasification processes, like the one at the Grand Forks Truss Plant.

The Grand Forks Truss Plant and EERC have partnered on a project that they hope will have value-added potential for industrial plant owners and energy producers alike in terms of safety, efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the energy process. If the EERC has its way, the end of the energy rainbow may be found in a garbage can near you.


Julie L. Fedorchak is a North Dakota-based freelance writer with broad knowledge of the state’s economy, including two of its primary industries: energy and agriculture.

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