|The audacious plan of Hiroshi Morihara|
HM3’s briquettes, made with various kinds of biomass, are intended to replace coal with no modifications required to coal-burning power plants.
// Photo by Eric Näslund
Morihara’s product looks like coal, but if it works as advertised it could end up resembling gold. The Boardman coal plant, run by Portland General Electric (PGE), is Oregon’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and its days of burning coal are numbered. PGE has agreed to stop burning coal there by 2020, and the utility is working closely with Morihara as he develops his torrefaction process.
Morihara decided to focus on torrefaction after recognizing PGE’s shift away from coal as a major opportunity for new suppliers. He was working on cellulosic ethanol at the time, converting plants into liquid fuel. Shifting to torrefaction, he and his team began studying what has been done with torrefaction thus far, and testing out various theories to perfect their process at a lab Morihara set up at Mount Hood Community College in Gresham.
Dozens of companies around the globe are working on torrefaction as a solution to the environmental costs of coal. Torrefaction plants have been built in Europe to lower greenhouse gas liabilities at power plants, but they have run into technical issues and are not considered reliable suppliers at this point. But that could change, and if it does, fortunes will be made. “The market is so huge, it is worldwide,” says Morihara. “A lot of winners can be born in this industry. Hopefully we will be one of them.”
Morihara’s plan is to build 20-25 plants at or near former sawmills in Oregon, producing up to 3 million tons of biomass per year. Each plant would create 22 jobs supported by another 50 or so workers responsible for collecting the biomass and bringing it to the plant, plus create various indirect jobs. Political and business leaders who are familiar with Morihara and his latest project are quick to praise him and wish him well. State Rep. Jules Bailey (D-Portland) calls Morihara’s plan an “extremely exciting” opportunity for Oregon to “set a global standard in innovation.”
In February 2010 Morihara tested HM3 briquettes at the Western Research Institute in Laramie, Wyo., the premier coal lab in the Western United States. The results showed that the HM3 product burns as coal burns, requiring no adjustments to power plant design, while releasing significantly less sulfur into the atmosphere and no detectable mercury emissions.
Morihara was thrilled with the results. But test results don’t build factories. So far HM3 has received $590,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, $241,00 from the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, and $500,000 from private investors buying company shares. He will need more. He is applying for further grants and loans, and recently entered the Clean Tech Open contest for the Pacific Northwest Region. But it won’t be easy. Private lenders (at least those outside of the Internet technology sector) are investing cautiously, and public dollars are drying up as pressure builds from frugal taxpayers.
Rep. Tobias Read (D-Beaverton), a major supporter of Morihara and HM3, says any assistance from the state will need to be balanced with “the fact that we’re out of money.” For example, HM3 had qualified for assistance through the state’s Business Energy Tax Credit (BETC) program, but the state has phased out the program to cut costs. Morihara is also waiting for approval for up to $6 million under the federal EB-5 program that grants green cards to foreign investors for backing projects that create jobs, but applications have soared in that program and competition is tight.
Morihara is fully aware that raising enough money to build factories all over Oregon and winning the race to market for a promising new business (not to mention overcoming the inevitable counterattack from the coal lobby) will present a huge challenge. That’s what he likes.