Ken Thompson is looking for ways of turning trash into money. He's the president of the Superior trucking company behind Elkhorn Industries.
Thompson says a retired factory in Superior can be retro-fitted to reduce the region's waste, while generating electricity, producing ethanol, and manufacturing useful products from wood scraps. Thompson says it can use all kinds of trash from the area.
"We're getting this from the United States - from Minnesota, Wisconsin - and we're going to produce energy from that," says Thompson. "Whether it be for ethanol, for electricity, or for steam; but we're going to make useful products out of waste."
Eco-industry is a fairly new concept for manufacturing things with fewer natural resources coming into the factory, and less pollution going out. It's done by bringing together different industries that can feed on each other's waste.
Right now, Elkhorn is a mostly empty building on Superior's waterfront - a closed hardboard plant. General Manager Erik Monge wants to use the plant's wood presses and boilers to turn other business's wood scraps into fiberboard products.
But Monge says the old wood mill's boilers don't run cheaply.
"They consume $3 million worth of fuel. A couple, $3 million worth of electricity a year," Monge says. "That's pretty standard for a good sized mill. I was wondering how we could do that more cheaply, more efficiently. So we started looking at gasification systems - plasma systems."
Plasma gasification is a way to break down waste with high pressure and very high heat. It's not supposed to create air pollution. But it does create a flammable gas.
"There's your fuel," says Monge. "Not only that, but you end up with waste electricity and waste steam heat. Well, steam and electricity is what I need to run the mill."
So, he says, his mill can be running on garbage - even old tires, or the fluff left over when old cars are recycled. But there's more to be done.
"Once you create the syn-gas, you can filter off the hydrogen," says Monge. "You can burn it in a turbine. You could burn it in a natural gas boiler, like what we have."
Or, he says, you can put it the gas into a bio-reactor that has a bacteria in it that actually consumes the synthetic gas and excretes, in this case, ethanol. Meanwhile there's carbon dioxide which can be pumped into greenhouses growing tomatoes and cucumbers.
Monge's looking into using waste heat, sewage sludge, and grain dust he can get from nearby Superior industries. And he hopes to attract new businesses, like a Canadian fuel cell company that might want to tap the project's available hydrogen.
The University of Minnesota's Sangwon Suh is an eco-industry expert. According to Suh, the gasification process doesn't create the typical pollutants found by burning. But there may be pollutants, like heavy metals, to trap and remove. Some of the anti-pollution equipment is already in place.
"Still there is a chance of small emissions of those pollutants," Suh says. "It is not 100 percent pure no emissions. It is not simply possible."
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources will help write appropriate air, water, and solid waste permits, according to Laurel Sukup, an environmental assistant coordinator with the DNR.
"We will be very thorough in working with the company, and knowing each type of equipment and each step that will be taking place at the facility so that we could anticipate any emissions or waste generation," Sukup says.
Meanwhile, Elkhorn has teamed up with a two year old initiative to bring eco-industry to Duluth and Superior. Volunteers have helped present the project to state and federal officials. They're applying for a State of Wisconsin planning grant; and they're looking for federal loan guarantees. According to Monge, the project is on a fast track. He hopes to be producing products from trash within two years.