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Columbia company hopes to fuel power plant with corn waste

Wednesday, September 26, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:50 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, September 26, 2012
Nancy Heimann, president of Enginuity Worldwide LLC, and Bob Heimann, corrosion engineer, pose for a portrait Tuesday morning in their laboratory. In the foreground are grass and corn stalks used to make pellets that could be used as alternate fuel for power plants.

COLUMBIA — When Nancy and Bob Heimann leave for work in the morning, they pour a cup of coffee and go no farther than their three-car garage.

In place of any vehicles, there are stainless steel tables and industrial equipment, surrounded by microscopes, computers and glass beakers.

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The couple has lived in Columbia for more than 30 years, and combined, they hold more than 70 patents in the United States, Canada and Europe.

Their garage, located in northern Columbia on North Fall Creek Drive, is the prototype laboratory for Enginuity Worldwide, a company that Nancy Heimann created in 2008 that focuses on designing and implementing innovative technology.

"We usually work behind the scenes," Nancy Heimann said, referring to the companies that Enginuity has partnered with.

That is all changing with Enginuity's latest project.

Enginuity is stepping to the forefront in creating and marketing a new form of renewable energy, and they hope the Columbia Municipal Power Plant will be their proving ground.

Enginuity is negotiating a contract to sell pellets made of corn waste to Columbia Water and Light. The state Department of Natural Resources is reviewing a permit that would let the power plant use Enginuity's pellets for up to 50 percent of its fuel.

'Homegrown energy'

The inspiration for the pellets — made of corn stover and the grass miscanthus giganteus — came from a project that Nancy Heimann, a chemical engineer, participated in that was focused on identifying renewable energy opportunities in Missouri.

The majority of Missouri's power comes from coal, Nancy Heimann said, and almost all of that coal comes from out-of-state sources.

"Our product will be homegrown energy for Missouri," she said. "The uniqueness of our product is that it is not beholden to one supply source."

Corn stover and miscanthus are both annually renewable resources, meaning they can be harvested every year, Nancy Heimann said.

Bob Heimann said his interest in the project hinged on working with an annually renewable crop. The mechanical engineer and self-described "lab rat" has patents in the aerospace and automotive industries, such as anti-corrosion designs for gas tanks and other metallic surfaces.

Other companies have manufactured biomass pellets in the past using wood and grass, but Bob Heimann believes Enginuity's product is superior.

Unlike other pellets being burned in coal fired power plants, he said, Enginuity's product is primarily made of corn stover, which is the stalk left over after the ears of corn are harvested. The corn stover is mixed with miscanthus, a grass engineered as a fuel source that was first used in Europe in the 1980s.

"The problem with other grass pellets is that they lack natural adhesive," Bob Heimann said.

Not so with Enginuity's pellets.

Enginuity's product has a 90 percent durability rate, Bob Heimann said, as the pellets rattled around inside a blue tumbler used to simulate transportation. Durability means power plants can handle the pellets much in the same way they would coal.

Durability is calculated by measuring the percentage of the pellets that are turned to dust during the tumbling, Bob Heimann said.

"Our pellets are made of a coarser material, which reduces the amount of dust during processing," he said, as he pointed to the glass container filled with the stringy corn stalks used to make Enginuity's pellets.

Enginuity's real "claim to fame," though, is the microwaving process that makes the fuel pellets water resistant, Bob Heimann said.

Other pellets swell when they soak up water, making them less durable, he said. Enginuity's pellets are designed to shed water, making the product easier to transport and store.

"That is a benefit to the user," Nancy Heimann said.

The microwaving process also increases the amount of heat that can be produced by the pellets, Bob Heimann said.

Enginuity's pellets produce 7,400 British thermal units per pound, which compares to 8,000 to 12,000 Btu per pound of coal.

That's important for the Municipal Power Plant, because it would be the first power plant to test the new fuel.

Power plant explores biomass

The Municipal Power Plant has been burning wood chips with coal since 2008, in a process known as "co-firing." The power plant is looking into other biomass fuels, including Enginuity's pellets, said Christian Johanningmeier, power production superintendent at Columbia Water and Light.

The power plant is pursuing the renewable fuels in order to fulfill the city's renewable energy ordinance, Johanningmeier said, referring to the 2004 voter-approved initiative that requires Columbia to get 15 percent of its electricity from renewable resources by 2022.

Ryan Milhollin, an agricultural economist at MU who has studied the burning of biomass at coal-fired power plants, is familiar with Enginuity's pellets.

"The biggest problem with corn stover and grass is density," Milhollin said. "Unprocessed corn stover causes slagging and fouling in the boilers. Power plants just aren't set up to handle that much bulky feed stock."

Pelletizing the biomass takes care of that problem, Milhollin said, allowing the biomass to be handled like coal.

"The question is, how much are they going to pay for it," Milhollin said, referring to the coal power plants. 

Cost of energy

The Municipal Power Plant is currently paying $4 per 1 million Btu, Johanningmeier said.

Enginuity's pellets are expected to cost more than coal, Johanningmeier said, while wood is about the same price.

The difference in price is something Bob Heimann thinks will change as the manufacturing process becomes more efficient through economies of scale.

The use of the pellets wouldn't have a significant effect on the price of electricity, Johanningmeier said, adding that the city's renewable energy ordinance capped any cost increases caused by more expensive renewable energy sources at 3 percent.

Moving forward

In the next six months, Enginuity will set up a demonstration site to produce enough fuel to power a test burn at the power plant, Nancy Heimann said. The site is expected to be located on the COLT railway line just north of Columbia.

While the demonstration site will be in Columbia, a permanent manufacturing plant would likely be located closer to the sources of corn stover to reduce transportation costs, Nancy Heimann said.

Enginuity is working with the Missouri Corn Growers Association to get the corn stover needed to produce enough fuel for a test burn, Nancy Heimann said.

"We're very excited to work with the city," she said. "We have a vision here in Columbia, and we're hopeful we can execute."

Supervising editor is John Schneller.


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