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Company in race to create alternative fuel for coal plants

by: COURTESY OF HM3 - COURTESY OF HM3 A Gresham company hopes its briquettes made of biomass and resembling hockey pucks can be a clean-burning fuel substitute for coal at coal plants.Hiroshi Morihara’s wife said he looked bored. She suggested he invent something. The result of this suggestion, paired with Morihara’s ingenuity, may change the world.

Morihara is the CEO and founder of HM3 Energy. The Gresham-based company, formed in 2008, has developed a proprietary process to turn sustainably harvested biomass — forest waste like tree limbs, bark, tree tops and agricultural residue — into economically viable clean fuel that can replace coal in coal-fired power plants.

Substituting HM3’s biomass briquettes for coal would reduce carbon emissions into the atmosphere and throw a monkey wrench into the path of global warming. It also could prove vital for Oregon’s energy supply, in light of a 2010 agreement to close the state’s only coal-fired power plant, Portland General Electric’s Boardman facility, by the end of 2020.

“You have to have environmental and government pressure to replace coal with clean fuel,” Morihara says. “Five to ten years ago this technology wasn’t possible, this pressure wasn’t there.

“The United States burns 1 billion tons of coal a year and power plants globally are under pressure to clean up. So we have a great opportunity.”

by: COURTESY OF HM3 - Hiroshi MoriharaMorihara and his team of engineers, along with researchers from Oregon State University’s Department of Wood Science and Engineering, are racing to develop and successfully commercialize the dense biomass briquettes. Morihara says his seven-person operation is competing with a handful of green energy companies to be the first to successfully market such a product.

Like coffee beans

The dark-brown briquettes resemble hockey pucks. However, they pack the energy equivalent of coal and burn without releasing pollutants like sulfur, nitrous oxides and mercury.

The process to create the briquettes, called torrefaction, is old. Roasting a coffee bean is essentially torrefaction. HM3 Energy has cleverly reapplied the technology to create clean energy.

First, biomass is collected from urban construction sites, forest thinning or logging.

Next, the biomass is ground, dried and heated to torrefaction temperature — more than 392 degrees Fahrenheit in the absence of air, causing the wood’s properties to change.

Carcinogenic vapor is released from the biomass, captured and combusted. Heat from the combustion is used to dry now-torrefied wood. The product is then cooled and compressed into dense briquettes that, unlike wood pellets on the market, can be burned in existing power plants. The water-resistant briquettes also can be stored outdoors and easily shipped in open rail cars.

A BEST bet

This year, the Oregon Built Environment & Sustainable Technologies Center (Oregon BEST) awarded an $86,000 commercialization grant to HM3 Energy and its partners at

Oregon State University. Oregon BEST awarded $1 million in grants to speed commercialization of the state’s most promising clean-technology products.

“If HM3 Energy is successful in its goals, it will have created a truly transformational technology addressing a major global energy challenge,” says David Kenney, Oregon BEST executive director.

Eventually HM3 Energy plans to build a small commercial plant in Prineville, Ore., where sufficient biomass feedstock is economically available within a 40-mile radius. An additional 10 to 20 plants could be built throughout Oregon to replace all of the fuel currently burned by Portland General Electric.

“The beautiful thing is that these plants have the potential to address many of Oregon’s woes right now,” Morihara says. “The production facilities will be located in rural areas where jobs are so desperately needed. The feedstock is forest slash which is currently burned in place or left to rot. And the final product is a clean replacement fuel for coal. This is good for the Oregon economy and good for the environment.”

Final tests?

But the product isn’t quite ready for marketing.

HM3 Energy conducted a pilot test in 2010 and again this August. Morihara says the last test was semi-successful, as the product was inconsistent. A third test will be executed in November.

“The most critical test is scaling up; that’s what we are doing now,” Morihara says. He refused to reveal the location and details of that test.

“Only a few companies in the world are at our state,” he says. “We want to make sure nobody takes advantage of us. The key is who is going to be the first ... We think we are better than them.”

Utilities like Portland General Electric, TransAlta, PacifiCorp, Duke Energy and international energy providers have already expressed interest in HM3’s briquettes. Morihara says the companies are “anxiously waiting.”

Morihara, his wife — who now works in the lab — and the rest of the team at HM3 Energy are also anxious. The team is racing against the clock to be the first company worldwide to successfully create and market a clean replacement for coal.

The stakes of this race — averting environmental catastrophes caused by an increasingly warm climate — are high.