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Tech Tour Day Four: Amazing Alpena

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Workers assembling a cellulosic ethanol plant in Alpena. Matt Roush photo.

Workers assembling a cellulosic ethanol plant in Alpena. Matt Roush photo.

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(For complete coverage of my 2013 Spring Tech Tour, click here.)

ALPENA (WWJ) – Alpena, hotbed of technology. Who knew?

No, seriously. This gritty industrial town — sometimes literally gritty, home to a huge Lafarge Corp. cement plant and a huge wood processing plant that turns wood chips into wood panels — has a ton of cool technology-based economic development going on.

It’s an effort worthy of a city much larger than Alpena’s modest population of 10,000. This town feels far bigger than that, probably because it’s the biggest town north of Bay City on Michigan’s east coast, the so-called Sunrise Side.

You’ll notice that many of these companies and institutions are tied to Alpena’s legacy industries in cement, wood, and shipping, but that makes them no less high tech.

My day in Alpena — assembled by Jim Klarich, executive director of economic development at Target Alpena Development Corp. — began bright and early at Premium Hydro Solutions LLC on M-32 a couple of miles west of town.

Dustin Prevost, company president, is an Alpena native who worked in the oil and gas industry but soured on it, put an ad on Monster.com, and wound up working for a Pittsburgh company involved in high-pressure waterblasting equipment. Prevost said he became convinced that he could build that mousetrap better, and so he waited out a one-year noncompete agreement with that company by designing the proprietary gear that’s now part of Premium Hydro’s products, which he launched in 2009.

Premium Hydro’s major product uses a 900-horsepower diesel engine to drive a gallon of water a second through a tiny 1/25-inch nozzle, creating pressure of 20,000 pounds per square inch. The nozzles rotate at various angles at speeds of up to 1,500 rpm to create different cutting effects. The system can cut into concrete from roughly an inch to more than a foot.

The product is used in concrete reconstruction — it can strip off damaged concrete from a road surface or wall while leaving healthy quality concrete behind, it can strip the concrete off steel reinforcing bars, leaving only the steel.

Premium Hydro is now up to 10 employees, up from four in 2010, and has crews currently working on road and bridge projects in Alabama, Idaho and Montana. Other projects have included removing concrete at a steel plant during a maintenance shutdown and removal of concrete on bridges, dams and parking garages.

Prevost and general manager Chris Moore are currently planning a new headquarters, 8,400 square feet of new space a little farther out M-32.

More at http://hydrodemolition.us.com/

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The next tour stop was WellConnect, where the Schultz family is out to change the way America heats and cools its homes.

Dennis Schultz is a third generation builder who came back to Alpena with an aeronautical engineering degree — and got into green power, helping the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Alpena offices earn LEED green certification.

“We educated ourselves — nobody did (LEED building) around here,”  Schultz said.

During that education, Schultz said he learned that “geothermal was an excellent heating and cooling source, but very expensive.” Paybacks took too long, banks wouldn’t finance it, Schultz said.

Still, the idea persisted. Using the natural constant temperature of groundwater to both heat and cool air is a tempting green idea. And one of Schultz’s employees, Ben Westrope, a skilled engineer, and a partner in Indiana with 30 years of experience in geothermal heating, worked together to make geothermal more affordable.

The idea of Well-Connect is to provide more than three-quarters of the benefit of a full geothermal system, but at less than half the cost. Schultz said the unit provides all the cooling most homes need, and assists with the heating so that an existing furnace only has to work on the most bitter cold winter days.

Dennis’ son Tim said that with natural gas from utilities so cheap these days, WellConnect is focused on competing against bottled propane, fuel oil and wood. “Those wood boilers are $15,000 to $18,000 and you have to work on them every day,” Tim Schultz said. “We are a third of that price, plus we provide cooling and you don’t have to work every day.” The target market: 65,000 homes in northeast Lower Michigan that are off the natural gas grid, and which already have their own water wells. There are 800,000 such homes in Michigan, 3.8 million in the Midwest and 13 million nationally.

The Schultzes say they can build about 500 units a year out of their small plant on US-23 on the south side of Alpena, which would represent about $2 million a year in revenue. If they get busier than that, they’ll build a new plant.

The price: $4,965 plus tax. Installation is about $1,500.

One customer testimonial of a 1,100-square-foot home in rural Hawks has the owner saving $1,640 a year using WellConnect — nearly $41,000 over 20 years.

WellConnect currently has six employees and one part-timer. The plan is to hire an additional six people to get production going. And they say they’re trying to source as much of the components in the United States as possible — the cabinets are made in Traverse City, the water exchanger in Brown City, the compressors in Ohio and the coils in Texas.

More at http://www.wellconnectgeo.com/.

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My next visit was to Michigan’s first working cellulosic ethanol plant.

Yeah, we all heard a lot about cellulosic ethanol back in the 2000s. Dreams of running our cars on wood waste have taken a beating, but at a brand new plant in Alpena being built by Atlanta, Ga.-based American Process Inc., they’re coming true.

API first visited Alpena in 2007 to do an energy study for Decorative Panels. They came back to study how Decorative Panels handles its wastewater, which is laden with hemicellulose and lignin from wood.

Currently, that water is aerated in lagoons so bacteria will “eat” it, and those bacteria are harvested and either burned or used as fertilizer.

API figured it could take the waste with the heaviest concentration of hemicellulose and use acids, specially engineered yeast and distilling equipment to convert it into alcohol that will be used as fuel.

The process also creates acetic acid, which can be processed with potassium to create potassium acetate, a de-icing fluid.

The plant expects to produce about 700,000 gallons of ethanol a year once production begins in July, according to operations manager Mark Szczepanik. It’s certainly an impressive operation, looking in places like a NASA rocket garden.

API currently has 26 employees, the majority of them out of a green technology program offered at Alpena Community College.

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Next up was a visit to NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuary, where four federal employees, a couple of state employees and several local workers protect the 448-square-mile Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

Turns out that the waters off Alpena, Thunder Bay, are among the most treacherous in the Great Lakes. Crowded shipping lanes, unpredictable weather, and primitive technologies in the 19th and early 20th centuries led to shipwrecks that claimed more than 200 vessels in and around Thunder Bay. So far more than 50 have been discovered within the sanctuary, and another 30 in the areas just outside it.

NOAA operates a museum in Alpena called the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center, as well as a research effort to use modern technology to discover more shipwrecks — technologies that can also be used to search the seas for biological knowledge, according to Russ Green, the center’s deputy superintendent and research coordinator.

The sanctuary is also used in testing sonar and remotely piloted boats.For more on the sanctuary’s research, visit http://thunderbay.noaa.gov/research/expeditions.html.

The museum also just got a very cool addition, a huge globe called Science on a Sphere, upon which can be projected pictures of the Earth, other planets, or information. (Think being able to follow storm systems as they move around the earth, or a map of changes in the planet’s temperature.) The only other one I’ve ever seen is at the Detroit Zoo. As a teaching tool, it’s simply amazing. See http://www.sos.noaa.gov/What_is_SOS/index.html.

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From then it was off to Alpena Community College and a visit with Don MacMaster, its dean of workforce development. (Yeah, I know, my college visits are usually part of the fall tech tours, but give me a break, it was my first time in Alpena and I wanted to hit everything.)

ACC is working with the NOAA center in marine technology — the college just got a $1 million Department of Labor grant to create a marine technology program.

And it received a $2.8 mllion Department of Labor grant for the development of training opportunities in five clean energy sectors across northeastern Michigan.

ACC also trains utility technicians — I watched a group of students Monday practicing climbing electric poles — including a new smart grid curriculum.

And it’s a world center in teaching the science and technology behind concrete, the world’s second most used commodity (behind only water). There’s also a $200,000 federal grant to study how concrete absorbs carbon dioxide as it cures.

MacMaster said 20 to 25 students a year pass through the concrete program, and “people come from around the country to hire them … we’re the only community college in the country that has a two year associate degree in concrete technologies.”

ACC’s World Center for Concrete Technology, built in 2000, offers half a dozen classrooms and labs for learning about concrete, “both in terms of the mechanisms and machinery involved in making it and in the chemistry of making it.”

Alpena-based Besser Co., a global manufacturer of concrete forming machines, is a major benefactor of the center.

Concrete is a mixture of sand, aggregate (small rocks of various shapes and sizes that gives concrete various properties), cement (that sticks the rocks and sand together) and water. MacMaster said that today’s cement making processes are very carbon intensive — for every ton of cement made for concrete a ton of carbon dioxide is produced. ACC’s research is involved in making concrete stronger, lighter, and less carbon-intensive.

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My last visit of the day in Alpena was with a startup called Scentfree Outdoors. Two partners, Terry Dehring and Kevin Stoltz, have created a new propane stove that burns so clean it’s safe to use indoors. (But just in case, the device comes with a built-in oxygen sensor in case the oxygen level in the room begins to drop.)

It’s intended for outdoor applications like ice fishing or winter camping.

The device’s combustion technology, named Jet Current, is the key to its clean burning, both in terms of a swirling motion to the flame, and the temperature of the combustion, a high 1,500 degrees.

The device is now selling for $399 at Indiegogo.com as an introductory special. Dehring and Stoltz are meeting with representatives of major outdoor stores, where it will retain for $449 to $499.

The device can carry a one-pound canister of propane on board, enough to last for six to eight hours of heating, and can also be connected to a 20-pound propane tank, where the partners estimate its cost of operation at 11 cents an hour.

The oxygen sensor operates on a nine-volt battery that also powers the heater’s ignition spark.

Dehring and Stoltz say they’ve been working on the heater for 11 years. And while they’re excited about its prospects, neither man has yet quit his day job. (Dehring has a manufacturing job, Stoltz works in retail.)

The attractive heater is a global product, with its oxygen sensor made in Scotland, the burner made in California, and the sheet metal and final assembly work taking place in India.

More at www.nudawnheat.com.

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And so that was it for Alpena. And i didn’t even get into Jim Klarich’s ongoing efforts to make Alpena a world center for testing drone aircraft technologies.  Like so many places in Michigan, Alpena’s airport and its 9,000-foot runway is a former air force base and is still an air national guard base. You can’t see one end of it from the other because of the curvature of the earth. But when you look at Alpena, just maybe, you see the future of Michigan — a combination of advanced technology and good, old-fashioned we-still-make-stuff-here manufacturing.

Tuesday, I’m hitting the tri-cities of Midland, Bay City and Saginaw. Speaking of places that still make things. Can’t wait!

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