Enterprise Minnesota Magazine - November 2012
HELPING MANUFACTURERS GROW PROFITABLY
American Peat Technology pioneers a peat-based solution to sulfate contamination that could add thousands of mining jobs on Minnesota’s Iron Range.
By Andrea Lahouze
American Peat President Doug Green holds peat soil that formed after the retreat of Glacial Lake Aitkin 10,000 years ago.
Trudging through the spongy peat bog that was once Glacial Lake Aitkin, it’s hard to imagine that the peat soil beneath your feet could hold the key to adding an estimated 5,300 mining jobs on Minnesota’s Iron Range. But peat’s quotidien appearance belies a complex chemistry that offers a variety of applications just beginning to be understood. Among them is the ability to remove dissolved heavy metals from water—and the potential ability to remove the sulfate that forms and enters the water supply when metals are mined from sulfur-bearing rock.
At high levels, sulfate can affect crop growth, particularly the Range’s plentiful supply of wild rice, spurring the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to enact more stringent regulations regarding its presence in water, reducing the acceptable level to 10 parts per million (ppm) in 1973. To date, Minnesota’s mining industry has not found a way to sufficiently and economically mitigate the sulfate discharge that enters the surface and ground waters as a result of mining activity. As a result, the Duluth Complex, one of the largest deposits of identified copper, nickel and precious metals in the world—about 4.4 billion tons, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources—remains an untapped resource.
Aitkin-based American Peat Technology is on a mission to change all that. President Doug Green’s background as a geologist and retired Alaska gold miner give him a unique perspective on the mining industry’s current challenge, and confidence in peat’s ability to solve it.
“Peat is one of the least valued and most valuable natural resources we have,” Green says. Since 2003, Green, along with the rest of American Peat’s management team Mark Krezowski, executive advisor, and Ryan Menzel, vice president of operations and safety, have been on a mission to analyze peat’s molecular structure and capabilities, and engineer useful products in the process.
Northern Minnesota’s vast supply of peat deposits is a parting gift from the glaciers that once covered much of the state. Upon their retreat 10,000 years ago, they left behind a multitude of shallow lakes filled with plants like cattails, reeds and sedges. When these plants die, they sink into the water and decompose at an extremely slow rate, forming peat. Peat has an inherent ability to absorb heavy metals, but the waxes and resins on its surface make it impervious to water in its natural state. The challenge has been finding a way to allow water to flow through the peat, thereby facilitating the adsorption of metals the water contains.
Over five years, American Peat worked with Igor Kolomitsyn. PhD, a researcher from University of Minnesota Duluth’s Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI), to alter the molecular structure of peat growing in local bogs. The solution involves a patented, active heat process that as a final processing step turns peat into a hard, porous granule. That granule constitutes American Peat’s newest product, APTsorb.
APTsorb is currently used to meet environmental regulations for industrial wastewater and storm water runoff, particularly in urban spaces where particulate levels can be higher. The product removes a variety of metals and other compounds from water, including zinc, mercury, copper, iron, manganese and others, by creating bonds between the metals and the active sites of the peat molecules. The chemical bonds, known as “chelated” bonds, have been tested and pass EPA TCLP tests, suggesting they would hold for an estimated 200-plus years, making APTsorb safe for landfill disposal once it is saturated with metals.
With a $100,000 loan from the Iron Rage Resources and Rehabilitation Board and support from the NRRI Development Fund, researchers at American Peat are working to tweak the APTsorb product so that it can also bond with the sulfate ion. American Peat will repay the loan when the product becomes profitable. Green says the company is close to a solution, which he anticipates will hit the market within two years.
In the meantime, APTsorb’s predecessor, which accounts for the majority of American Peat’s current sales, is an agricultural treatment product called bioAPT. Essentially the granular, untreated form of APTsorb, bioAPT is inoculated with a bacteria called rhizobia, then sold to farmers to spread on their fields when they plant legumes. The bacteria attaches to the legume plants, and converts nitrogen from the air into a form the plants can easily absorb. This allows the bean plants grow stronger and healthier, and helps the soil to retain more nitrogen. As a result, farmers can plant corn, a more profitable crop, for two years in a row, instead of having to alternate corn and beans each year in order to protect the quality of the soil.
Over time, Green hopes bioAPT will prove to be a more economical and environmentally-sustainable alternative to nitrogen fertilizer, which is derived from oil products and is therefore becoming more expensive.
Green by necessity
For all the ingenuity required to develop the products themselves, manufacturing them has demanded equal resourcefulness. Green, a self-proclaimed “junkyard engineer,” estimates that about 85 percent of American Peat’s facility has been constructed with repurposed materials.
The company’s cyclone, which draws wet peat up into the first of two dryers, is actually a vertical Readymix concrete mixer truck. Its number-one dryer is a 1960s era Hardinge classifier, originally built as a rock tumbler for the taconite mines. The company purchased and modified it for $43,000 after receiving a $277,000 quote for a new dryer. To turn pelletized peat into powder for American
Peat’s APTsorb product, Green rescued a circa 1950 ball mill from a local scrap yard. The walls of APT’s peat drying operation are stands from a Minneapolis parking garage that were built to the wrong specifications. The company got them for free, just for hauling them away.
It would be easy to consider American Peat’s approach to building an environmentally conscious pursuit. But Green says it’s a matter of practicality.
“When you’re trying to start a business, the biggest problem is having enough capital to get everything going. We were able to circumvent that to a large degree by being able to buy junk,” he says.
All in all, Green estimates the facility cost around $5 million—$10 million less than a contractor’s $15 million bid.
Apart from cost savings, Krezowski says the design also gives American Peat a leg up on any future competitors that may come along.
“Nobody is doing what we’re doing, but if somebody wanted to, it would probably cost them about three or four times as much to put together a plant today, so they couldn’t be cost-competitive,” Krezowski says.
While environmental stewardship is an opportune byproduct of American Peat’s thrifty approach to building, it is a core focus when it comes to the company’s raw material supply. American Peat has 320 acres of peat bogs under permit in Aitkin County, and has recently acquired another 157 acres, giving it an estimated 400-year supply of peat. But the company’s ultimate goal is to create a continuous peat supply by fostering an ideal environment for the necessary bacterial processes to occur, thereby causing peat to grow much more quickly than it would in nature. Current decomposition tests suggest peat could grow about 100 times faster, if perfect conditions are supplied.
“Ideally, we want to produce peat as fast as we’re using it and therefore make our company truly sustainable,” Green says.
As American Peat draws nearer to a sulfate solution, Krezowski says the company’s next challenge will be winning the trust of its largest target market: the mining industry.
“All the other [sulfate and heavy metal removal] solutions the mining industry has considered are very costly and are developed by big, multi-billion dollar companies. We’re sitting here with a little company right in their backyard, and so many of them think it’s too good to be true,” Krezowski explains. “They are also very risk-adverse. Until they see proof that it truly works, they are not going to invest in American Peat’s solution.”
According to Green, the mining industry has also seen its share of peat-based water treatment products that proved ineffective, making them skeptical of American Peat’s offerings. But Green says those past products used raw, loose peat, which is impervious to water, unlike American Peat’s pelletized, granular and heat-treated peat.
Products currently available for treating water containing heavy metals are petroleum-based ion-exchange resins, which Krezowski says can cost about $1,200 per cubic foot. APTsorb costs about $60 per cubic foot in volume, and is equally effective, according to third-party studies.
To demonstrate to miners APTsorb’s efficacy at heavy metal adsorption, American Peat began their fifth pilot test in October at the Soudan Mine near Tower, Minn. Four previous pilot tests over the past four years all yielded successful results. This fifth test is a full-scale, full-production test to reduce specific metal concentrations in the mine’s affluent water to meet EPA requirements. The company will conduct additional tests once the product is also able to absorb sulfate. Until then, Krezowski says it’s a matter of casting off preconceptions and educating potential customers on what peat-based products can do.
“It took the tractor 30 to 40 years to displace the horse and plow after the first tractor was developed,” Krezowski says, “but eventually, enough people were convinced of the tractor’s benefits that it overtook the horse and plow. We’re up against a shorter yet similar learning and confidence cycle.”
To learn more about American Peat Technology, go to www.americanpeattech.com.
©2012, Enterprise Minnesota. All rights reserved.Reproduction encouraged after obtaining permission from EnterpriseMinnesota. Additional Magazines and reprints available for purchase.