By Steve Hansen
The alchemists of old failed in their wizardly efforts to turn lead into gold.
Bob Hockaday, a scientist based in Tucumcari, however, thinks he can do better.
Hockaday wants to apply the highest technology to the lowliest of organic matter and produce useful fuels, fertilizer and even food. Further, he eventually seeks to net about $2 million a year in gross profits from doing so by adapting Tucumcari’s abandoned Route 66 Ethanol Plant, and create 20 to 40 new jobs.
The Greater Tucumcari Economic Development Corp. has applied for a $50,000 grant from the USDA to study whether the ethanol plant could host a facility that would convert organic wastes from a variety of sources into useful materials. The EDC expects the study to be completed by June 1, 2015.
Patrick Vanderpool, director of the economic development corporation, said the ethanol plant conversion idea is a “good fit” with the intent of the USDA’s Rural Business Enterprise grant program.
“The funding cycle came around,” Vanderpool said, “so we decided to go for it.”
Vanderpool said grant-seeking in the rural business enterprise area is “very competitive.”
If found to be workable, the grant application says, Hockaday could launch a business using the Tucumcari ethanol facility, and perhaps other abandoned ethanol plants in the state, and patented waste-to-fuel processes.
Hockaday said manure and other wastes could be used to produce methane, liquid fuel, fertilizers and carbon dioxide, using a technology promoted by New Mexico State University’s Arrowhead Center, which helps to commercialize new technologies. The carbon dioxide would be channeled to a sealed greenhouse to help raise crops, using a process that Hockaday has patented.
In addition, Hockaday said, other byproducts could be converted to fertilizers. Iron sulfate could be manufactured from hydrogen sulfide gas, and the clean solid material remaining after processing would be a high-nitrogen fertilizer. The heat from the process, Hockaday said, is high enough to kill harmful bacteria.
If the project is deemed feasible, the grant application says, it will enable Hockaday’s firm, Energy Related Devices, Inc., to obtain loans to finance the refurbishing of the ethanol plant, which Hockaday estimates will cost around $5 million.
Hockaday said there are markets for both the bio-methane and dimethyl ether (DME) that the plant could produce.
DME, Hockaday said, is a gas derived from methane that is easily turned to liquid for shipping. Hockaday said a promising market is developing for DME as a clean substitute for diesel fuel.
The Safeway, Inc., truck fleet in the San Joaquin Valley of California has indicated that it would buy the DME from Tucumcari’s re-purposed ethanol plant, Hockaday said.
Safeway, the national grocery chain, has acquired at least two semi-trucks from Volvo Trucks that are designed to run on DME under a $500,000 grant from the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, according to Safeway and Volvo Trucks websites.
Hockaday said the refurbished ethanol plant would use an “anaerobic methane digester” technology developed at New Mexico State University and marketed through NMSU’s Arrowhead Center. The process improves on previous waste-to-fuel technologies by producing greater quantities of fuel gas in a shorter time, reducing odors, harmful bacteria and greenhouse gases, according to a fact sheet from the Arrowhead Center.
The bulk of the plant’s feedstock would be manure from feed lots and dairy operations, Hockaday said. Another source could be the Tucumcari Wastewater Treatment plant next door to the old ethanol plant. Other particularly rich resources, he said, would include wastes from cheese manufacturing and food wastes from restaurants.
According to the grant application, when the plant reaches peak operations, it is expected to produce revenues of $2.4 million for methane products, including DME; $1.6 million from carbon dioxide; and $80,000 from fertilizers. Costs directly related to production are expected to be a little less than $2 million, resulting in gross profits of $2 million a year, about 51 percent of revenues.
Robert Falco, director of the Institute for Energy Resourcefulness in Fountain Valley, Ariz., said waste recycling is poised to become an extremely lucrative area.
Falco, who is familiar with the Tucumcari ethanol plant, said while he would have preferred the final product to be ethanol, the process Hockaday seeks to develop is in all likelihood workable. Ethanol production, he said, is vulnerable to political shifts that could threaten ethanol manufacturing subsidies.