Spinning Gold Out of Straw

Worth A Look, Energy, Frontier Centre

‘We were told it couldn’t be done. Too many people had tried and failed.’ — Ray Dueck

MORRIS — Got gas? Gas from biomass, that is?

Some people do, and they’re laughing all the way to the bank.

A biomass gasifier that turns straw into heat is proving a huge money-saver in rural Manitoba.

Vidir Machine Inc., which employs about 100 people in the Interlake, has slashed its electric heating bill from $50,000 per year to just $2,500.

That’s the cost of a baler picking up straw that farmers more often burn off their fields. It may cost another $2,500 for electricity to run the gasifier, and manual delivery of round straw bales.

“We were told it couldn’t be done. Too many people had tried and failed,” said Ray Dueck, 55, co-president of Vidir Machine and inventor of the gasifier.

It works like this.

Straw is slowly shredded and transported into a chamber heated to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. That turns the straw into a gas. The gas moves into a second chamber at a temperature of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit and heats water in pipes. The water then works as radiant heat in old-fashioned radiators, or fanned through common forced-air systems.

All that’s left from burning of a 1,000-pound bale of straw is a lump of silica glass smaller than a softball.

Dueck built the first one six years ago for his manufacturing plant near Vidir, 120 kilometres north of Winnipeg in the Interlake. He installed his first private system in 2002 at Ron Penner’s farm in Landmark, east of Winnipeg, where it heats five chicken barns totaling 60,000 square feet.

“I would give it a thumbs up now. Two years ago, I wasn’t so enthused. We had to work out some kinks,” said Penner. Penner added that straw is more expensive in southern Manitoba than in the Interlake.

Dueck and his engineers helped Penner solve the initial problems. Now, instead of paying off the $300,000 system in three to five years from savings on his heating bill, it will now take five to seven years, Penner said. “We’re very enthusiastic,” he said.

That’s Dueck’s biggest obstacle: building a proven track record.

Les Routledge, spokesman for the Manitoba Sustainable Energy Association (ManSEA), which promotes renewable, environmentally friendly energy, believes Dueck’s gasifier is ready for market now. “He’s got all the bugs worked out,” Routledge maintained.

“(Dueck’s gasifier) is one of those things that could put a community head and shoulders above everyone else,” said Routledge. It would help municipalities slash heating costs, and attract industry to rural industrial parks, he said.

Right now, the gasifier’s application is strictly rural. But Dueck’s dream is to heat 200 homes in a loop system in the new Waverley West development in Winnipeg. If installed from the outset, pipes to carry heated water would be placed along side sewer lines and would not require new trenching.

Dueck will soon flick the switch on his third gasifier at his Vidir Morris Inc. plant in Morris, 50 kilometres south of Winnipeg, which makes grain hopper bins, and bicycle ceiling racks for the department stores.

Dueck said his annual heating cost will drop from $120,000 to $140,000 a year, to one-tenth that. Savings on electric heat or natural gas will pay off the cost of the $225,000 system in two years.

The gasifier will have additional capacity to heat up to 200 homes. The Town of Morris would like to tap into the gasifier to heat its hospital and personal care home. Town officials have already met with Dueck three times.

“We’re very interested in this,” said Mayor Barrie Stevenson.

The gasifier is also a possibility for a new recreation centre planned for the Town of Killarney, in southwestern Manitoba. A greenhouse starting up in southern Manitoba is likely to be the next customer. Many greenhouses are heated by coal because coal is cheap.

Routledge said Dueck’s invention is unique because it didn’t come out of academia. “Ray is a metal basher. He knows how to make things, and make them work in the real world,” he said.

The gasifier joins a long list of ventures in alternative energy being tried in rural Manitoba, including geothermal, wind power, biodiesel, ethanol-blended gasoline and biomass pellets heating. At times, the countryside seems like a sprawling laboratory trying to find an elusive alchemy to make power.

Dueck isn’t the only one trying to build a gasifier with commercial application


For some reason, the majority of research is in Manitoba.

Out of eight companies in Canada trying to develop gasifiers, six are based here. Manitoba Hydro says Vidir Manufacturing is the most advanced because it has a manufacturing shop to develop a system. Gasifiers are in operation in the United States, but none using straw that Dueck knows about.

Vidir was originally an Icelandic community whose means willow trees. All that’s left today is a community hall and a road sign. Dueck’s family was part of a group of Mexican Mennonites who began immigrating here in the 1970s.

Dueck’s father Willie actually started the gasifier in 1979, turning wood into gas to heat the manufacturing company he founded: Vidir Machine, which makes department store carousels for carpets and vinyl.

While looking across their farm fields one day, Ray wondered if the leftover straw would make a fuel, and tried to improve on his father’s design. He developed a mechanism for slowly feeding the straw, and a system for removing waste material.

“We were told we couldn’t burn straw because the silica plugs the system,” Ray said. So he built a system with two chambers instead of one. The silica condenses in the second chamber, and runs down the tank walls into a catcher at the bottom.

The United States patent office has rejected Dueck’s efforts to register his gasifier, saying a patent already exists. Dueck says the office doesn’t understand how his system is different, and he is prepared to go to Washington if necessary to explain it.

It reduces greenhouse gases, and other emissions are less than smoke from a single home’s wood fireplace.