$50 million Arizona project makes clean-fuel from wood waste

James Fenton

The company, Frontier Applied Sciences, hopes to begin construction of a prototype production facility next to an existing biomass plant owned by Novo BioPower.

The venture project will cost about $50 million and could create as many as 260 jobs, according to Mark Lewis, a company spokesman.

Frontier will process the fuel in a 40 mega watt coal plant using a "continuous-flow" technology — unlike the more common batch process — to produce energy without destroying all of the coal in the process.

Joe Witherspoon, Frontier's chief technology officer, said in a press release that the process, called FASForm, is cheaper and can produce various kinds of fuels.

"(Our process) is unique in its ability to not destroy the carbon used for power generation and yet continuously and profitably produce different liquid fuels," Witherspoon said in the release. "The process is relatively low-cost compared to other alternative energy technologies as it is low-pressure and (uses) only moderate temperature. We can, for the first time, process materials like biomass, coal, lignite and oil sands continuously with a unique approach to product recovery. This is a major breakthrough."

Mark Lewis, a Frontier spokesman, said in a phone interview that the company has begun to fund the project.

"We already have all the long-term financing lined up, and we're working on getting the equity financing lined up," Lewis said. "We're looking at 18 to 20 months to open."

Where the company will get the coal to produce its fuel is a question, however, Lewis said. An April 2 report in another newspaper saying that the Navajo Nation was negotiating with Frontier to supply coal from Navajo Mine was incorrect said Erny Zah, a spokesman for Navajo Transitional Energy Company, which owns the mine.

Navajo Mine has since the 1960s provided coal to one buyer, Four Corners Power Plant.

The mine, which is currently under an environmental review by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, would undo a multi-year process if a new coal customer were to be proposed, according to Zah.

"We are not involved with this project. We have an established plan that says we can only sell coal to Four Corners Power Plant. We're on the verge of getting our Record of Decision from (the Office)," Zah said in a phone interview. "Our focus is to stay within our contractual obligations to the power plant and any variation or deviation from that would force us to begin this whole process all over again."

LoRenzo Bates, speaker of the 23rd Navajo Nation Council, in a press release, said, "To date, the Office of the Speaker has not engaged in any discussions or negotiations with any parties regarding this matter, nor have we received any proposals. Additionally, we have not been made aware of any Navajo Nation entity that has plans to pursue such a proposal."

Lewis said the company was "considering (its) options" and would consider Lee Ranch Mine near Grants or other coal mines in the region as possible suppliers.

Ray Hagerman, CEO of Four Corners Economic Development, said he had not heard of the proposed project.

"There are lots and lots of technologies out there that will convert coal to hydrocarbon," Hagerman said. "We actually, in the past, have talked to companies that were possibly interested in turning coal into cleaner fuels and we've put them in touch with NTEC before. Whether (the tribal company) can or wants to is another matter and entirely up to them, of course."

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.