For the last six months the future has been housed in a small R&D company on the outskirts of Greenwood, Miss. Other than a sign bathed in soft, cathode blue light, there is nothing to distinguish Associated Physics of America (APA) from businesses around it.

It's at this location, though, that the future rests in the hands of only a few men: a couple of sharp, former farmers, a friendly businessman or two and, most importantly, a brilliant Afrikaner named Deon Potgieter. This handful of men has a plan for the future; a plan that just might revitalize the Delta.

Put simply, APA wants to take renewable energy production to a level unimagined before. For a price, they will latch a new-fangled RHB (Rhino Renewable Rotary Hydrogen Burner) onto an industrial boiler and instantly save the proud, new owner big money on his natural gas bill.

Farmers will be major players in this new enterprise because “biomass” is needed to feed the RHB — raw seed oils, waste stream oils, forest residue, industrial waste such as sawdust and black liquor, and dedicated energy crops like kenaf and industrial brown mustard seed oil. But what APA really likes to stuff into its unit's gullet is crop trash — especially cotton stalks.

“Do you realize that roughly 140 pounds of cotton stalks has an energy value of 1 million Btu?” asks Deon. “Our state has the largest concentration of value-added agricultural biomass in the country, and we're just tossing that energy to the side, allowing it to rot away while we pay higher and higher prices for natural gas.

“After cotton harvest, there are close to a million acres of stalks in a 100-mile radius of Greenwood, never mind the surrounding states. What happens? Farmers plow the stalks under, shred them, whatever. No one is taking advantage of this resource and that is madness!”

A farmer is driving

Although APA wants to focus on the good their machines will bring to agriculture (including poultry houses, where smaller gasification heating systems powered by chicken litter would seem to be an obvious fit), the benefits would be broader-based. Applications for the RHB can be found throughout the industrial landscape.

At the request of the Mississippi Land, Water and Timber Resources Board, John Plodinec, director of the Diagnostic Instrumentation and Analysis Laboratory (DIAL) at Mississippi State University, recently reviewed APA's RHB. Among other things, Plodinec concluded: “The potential market base for the RHB is huge. Probably the single largest market is the industrial boiler market. In this case, replacing a conventional burner with one that burns vegetable or cotton seed oil reliably would have a rapid return on investment (probably months).

“Another huge market might be found in the high-temperature industries (glass, metals) that now use natural gas burners. In this case, the required performance from the burner would be more stringent but again the payback could be very rapid. In addition, burners are utilized in the production of many industrial chemicals.”

In the face of such expansive (and still expanding) boundaries, all APA employees claim they are committed to agriculture first. However, with companies wanting APA to study how their products might integrate, opportunities aren't lacking. Many are wanting in: Thompson Power & Thompson Machinery is shipping a Cat/Olympian generator set from Ireland for APA to do in-house research with and a small army of industry reps have trekked to the 7-acre plot on Highway 82 just east of town.

Still, one gets the feeling that while any industry contact will be a welcome hitchhiker on the company bus a farmer will still be driving.

“People should know that we are absolutely committed to agriculture. That is our focus. We want to bring something good to the Delta farmer and we're going to,” says APA's financial manager Bobby Miller, a man with a bevy of farming credentials.

Plodinec's report in hand, the Mississippi resources board recently gave APA a contingent grant that is being used to finalize the company's offerings. In giving the grant, say APA employees, it was clear the state was pinning high hopes that quick dividends would come to Mississippi farmers.

“With the RHB having been through several technical reviews and endurance tests, the time has come for us to automate the system,” says Billy Hopper, APA's business manager. “Seeing that the RHB can only use gaseous and/or liquid feedstock, it seemed logical to incorporate the Test Bed gasification system. The resulting unit can now make use of most fuel sources regardless of their physical properties.”

The grant period is for a year and patents are pending. It should take a few months to complete automation. From there, APA will take possession of the system and begin running a formal test schedule. Once the tests are passed and patents confirmed, the unit would be placed in an industrial application.

APA envisions subcontractors collecting field trash, paying farmers for the privilege, and then delivering the biomass wherever it's needed. Such work would provide new, much-needed revenue in the Delta.

“By doing this it creates employment that will help our community, our state. This will benefit local economies. We're trying to generate income for farmers but also create employment for Delta residents. This is a win/win for everyone,” says Miller.

e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com.