Solution to a burning problem

Eric Mortenson/Capital Press Hiroshi Morihara believes briquettes made from woody biomass or crop residue can replace the coal used to produce electricity. His firm has developed the technology to produce the briquettes.

GRESHAM, Ore. — Hiroshi Morihara jokes that his current project — finding a clean-fuel replacement for coal — was his wife’s fault.

“Hiroshi,” his wife, Mary McSwain, told him several years ago, “you look bored. Why don’t you invent something again?”

On Oct. 18, Morihara’s company announced it has refined a process for turning logging slash or other biomass into briquettes that can be burned in coal-fired electrical plants such as the one in Boardman, Ore. His company, HM3 Energy Inc., has built a $4 million demonstration plant in Troutdale, Ore., just east of Portland. It plans to license the technology and sell it worldwide. A Japanese firm, New Energy Development Co., has invested $2 million in HM3 and said it will build a production plant at an undisclosed location in Oregon.

The fuel is produced through a method called torrefaction, in which woody debris, crop residue or other plant material is essentially roasted in the absence of oxygen. The end product is a brittle, briquette-looking material that can be crushed and burned.

Morihara and others believe the briquettes can be a cleaner, “drop-in” replacement for coal, which is considered a dirty energy source. Portland General Electric, which operates the Boardman power plant, is looking for a replacement fuel. Later this year, PGE will conduct a 24-hour test burn of torrefied biomass to see if it works.

The utility would need up to 8,000 tons of biomass fuel per day to replace the coal it now burns. Other companies are pursuing the technology; PGE is working with a coalition called Oregon Torrefaction to obtain the material it needs for the test burn.

The project potentially could become part of the West’s solution to intrusive Western juniper. Part of HM3’s grant funding came from the USDA as part of its search to find a use for juniper, and the fuel on display at the company’s press tour this month was made from the gnarly wood.

Morihara said using logging debris or material from forest thinning projects reduces the risk of catastrophic wildfire and could be part of an economic revival in rural Oregon.

“I wanted to make sure rural people have family wage jobs, and forestry is the best way,” he said.

Hiroshi Morihara

Occupation: Founder, president and CEO of HM3 Energy Inc., Gresham, Ore.

Age: 79, but “Age is relative,” he said.

Personal: Married to Mary McSwain. He’s an expert skier and still teaches skiing at Mount Hood Meadow. He also runs, and has completed more than 50 marathons.

What he’s up to: He and partners developed equipment to turn woody debris into briquettes that can be a “drop-in” replacement for coal and used to fire electrical generation plants. HM3 Energy built a demonstration plant in Troutdale, Ore., and intends to license the technology to companies that could build processing plants.

Ag connection: Intrusive Western juniper trees could be a key feedstock for briquette plants. Ranchers, wildlife officials and land managers say removing junipers improves rangeland, restores watersheds and can improve habitat for sage grouse.

Background: Born in Japan, he was 8 years old when Japan surrendered to end World War II. Came to the U.S to attend college, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan-Dearborn, and a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the University of Buffalo.

Professional life: Worked for Union Carbide Corp. and on projects for the U.S. Department of Energy, helped start a silicon processing plant, ran a pair of biotech companies, owned a golf course. Claims he’s retired three times.

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