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The quest to make cleaner coal: Mapleton firms aim for green energy market

FNS Photo by Dave Wallis Norm Miller displays biomass fuel pellets outside his business June 6 in Mapleton. The large object is a biomass/coal combination producing 16,000 BTUs, the middle is made from potato skins, and the other is a combination of prairie grasses. Both of the last two produce about 11,000 BTUs of heat.

MAPLETON — Norm Miller calls himself the father of biocoal.

And now, after decades spent developing a cleaner alternative to traditional coal, Miller and a family of companies he has formed in Mapleton are ready to stake a claim on the country’s green energy landscape.

Miller is a self-described inventor and management gun for hire whose career has included guiding troubled manufacturing operations to profitability.

About 2½ years ago, Miller and business partner Dan Skolness purchased a building in Mapleton with the aim of making it a launch pad for green fuels development.

Miller said they have put about $1.2 million into the enterprise, which includes three companies: BIONRG Inc., InvenTus and Macro Fab.

BIONRG is the main operation, with InvenTus the research and development arm.

Macro Fab is a fabrication shop that supports the other companies.

Miller said their efforts focus on making and selling clean coal and biomass products along with technical expertise.

They also market two inventions: the Hydro-Pack and the Tri-Pack.

The Hydro-Pack is a compact device that boosts the efficiency of internal combustion engines, like those in cars and trucks.

It works like this: Attached to vehicles, the Hydro-Pack separates small amounts of hydrogen from water and adds it to the engine’s fuel mixture.

The Tri-Pack is a larger machine, about 4 feet by 4 feet by 4 feet, into which many kinds of biomass — organic material like grass and sawdust — is placed and combined with traditional coal.

The process is enhanced by a chemical mixture Miller calls the “special sauce.”

What comes out of the Tri-Pack is an easy-to-handle biocoal that burns cleaner than regular coal.

Increased efficiency Biocoal can be used in all types of settings, from homes and commercial operations to large-scale power plants.

Although more expensive than regular coal, Miller said his biocoal packs about 20 percent more BTUs, making it more efficient and less polluting when burned.

Part of Miller’s operation involves producing clean coal and bagging it in 1-ton totes for wholesale distribution.

When it comes to the Hydro-Pack and Tri-Pack, Miller said those devices are just now reaching the market

In the case of the Tri-Packs, Miller is looking to sell the biocoal-making machines in addition to the training and know-how needed to run them.

Education, he said, is a major component of what they do and he cited a recent cost analysis they completed for a North Dakota farmer which showed that the farm operation could save $1 million annually if it burned biocoal instead of propane to dry grain.

Miller said the farmer is still on the fence about which fuel to go with.

While alternative energy choices have their skeptics, forces global and domestic are creating opportunities for options like biocoal, according to Dave Ripplinger, a bio-energy specialist with the North Dakota State University Extension Service in Fargo.

“There’s a lot of interest and a lot of work being done to create products in that space,” Ripplinger said.

Market drives demand Major drivers of that include things like the Environmental Protection Agency’s new emissions standards for power plants, a development that will have major consequences for the future of coal-fired operations.

Ripplinger said “there’s definitely a market there” for anyone who can create a cleaner fuel that can be used in existing coal-burning plants.

Miller said one of the strengths of the fuel he has developed is that the equipment that makes it can be placed near the furnaces and generators that burn it.

The Upper Midwest region is a prime candidate for the alternative fuel because coal and biomass are both easily obtainable here, according to Miller, who is optimistic his Mapleton companies will grow quickly now that product development has reached the marketing stage.

He anticipates staffing levels will grow from the current seven employees to 25 by November, but he said the missing ingredient right now is the money necessary for marketing.

“We’re working on a large package of funding to bring it all off the ground,” he said.

Dave Olson
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