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updated: 5/16/2013 5:36 PM

'Biochar' company may bring plant to Kane Co.

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The burgeoning biochar industry may soon find footing in Kane County as a Michigan-based energy company made an early pitch Thursday to build a local production plant.

Fred Jones of Cogen Designs introduced members of the county board's energy and environmental committee to the workings of the technology. The idea involves turning municipal waste into biochar, an alternative to coal for fuel purposes. The would-be plant would route municipal waste in trucks to the facility. The plant would charge a tipping fee to receive the waste, just like local landfills.

The waste would then go through a process that pulls out the metals, glass, plastics and other nonorganic substances. Those are then recycled and sold for a profit. The facility would then also turn the remaining waste partially into biodiesel to fuel the plant itself. The remaining waste would be converted into the charcoal-like biochar and sold at a competitive price to Illinois coal.

The process converts the waste into the coal-like substance in 90 seconds without using a traditional incinerator.

"The plan is simple and relatively cheap," Jones said. "The (product) looks and acts just like coal, but they burn differently. Why are we making coal? Everyone says it is dirty, right? Well, half our energy is produced by burning coal. So we've got a lot to do if we want to replace that coal. This is just a much more clean-burning coal substitute."

The smallest plant the company utilizes is about the same size as a Kmart, Jones said. But the largest plant is three times that size and would create about 120 jobs. The plant would have about $180 million in capital costs.

Jones did not get into the specifics of where his company might be considering locating the plant. But Geneva Mayor Kevin Burns told county officials after the presentation he might have a suitable location in mind. Jones has also engaged county board Chairman Chris Lauzen in early discussions about the technology and a possible plant. Lauzen spoke highly of the idea a few weeks ago.

"I believe that there is a tremendous opportunity there in a private/public partnership," Lauzen said. "I think that we could get a share of income in big numbers. It is millions of dollars, and it takes waste out of landfills."

Any possible plant would likely involve intense debate by county officials and the neighbors near any proposed location. The facility would see heavy truck traffic and the storage, for at least a short-term basis, of solid waste.

The technology has taken a bigger share of the spotlight through increasing public interest in environmentally friendly energy. However, several recent academic studies of the industry and technology indicate high capital and production costs have been a major barrier to the success of such plants.

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