How the furnace that could eat anything starved

Bureaucratic bungling has caused a wondrous furnace, which can eat almost anything, to sit nearly unused in Yukon college for 20 years. So says Albert Rock, a Whitehorse-based inventor who was hired in the mid-1980s to help

Bureaucratic bungling has caused a wondrous furnace, which can eat almost anything, to sit nearly unused in Yukon college for 20 years.

So says Albert Rock, a Whitehorse-based inventor who was hired in the mid-1980s to help start up the device, which is called a fluidized bed gasifier.

Government officials say the gasifier, which is designed to burn wood chips at such a high heat that almost no emissions are produced, never worked as intended.

Not true, says Rock.

He fired it up for three days, producing up to 6 million BTUs of power.

Then he hit a brick wall of bureaucracy. Officials would kowtow to contractors rather than ensure work was completed, and resist changes that would disrupt their own routines.

Even more remarkably, an electrician tore out the guts of the machine, ensuring it would not work, says Rock.

The territory even tried to pay someone to remove the machine at one point, he says.

These events taught Rock, a 64-year-old entrepreneur who has made a fortune selling electronic sensors that have been used in space shuttles and race cars, a sad lesson about the nature of government.

“No matter what, empires are built continually in the system,” he says. “And they’re usually built on incompetence.”

This leaves little room for business sense. The gasifier could save the territory $500,000 in annual heating costs, Rock estimates.

Following the release of Yukon’s energy strategy, the territory finally plans to dust off the gasifier and get it running by September. Upgrades, to be performed by Natural Resource Canada scientists, are to cost about $600,000.

Rock insists private contractors could do the work for half that amount.

The gasifier’s neglect is particularly offensive to Rock, who is passionate about technology. He considers the massive furnace’s metal casing and accompanying 33,000 gallon (124,918-litre) water tanks, built “like Triton submarines,” things of beauty.

He was hired in the mid-1980s to help commission the new Yukon College. The job involves methodically working through the building and checking to see if each part meets specification.

Often they didn’t.

Exhaust ducts, for example, were never properly sealed, he says.

As well, parts of the gasifier remain unfinished, such as a component to remove ash.

Still, the gasifier worked. So the territory hired a contractor to supply wood chips.

The contract specified the chips needed to have moisture content less than 35 per cent, says Rock.

The delivered product had twice that much moisture.

“It was green,” he says. “It’s like 70 per cent water in your gasoline.”

Rock noted the chips wouldn’t work. The contractor threw a fit.

“He went ballistic. He was hollering and screaming and, somehow, he went to the government and it got it OK’d.”

So officials burned the green chips. Predictably, this produced little heat but a lot of smoke, which leaked through the faulty exhaust ducts and into the college.

Then officials decided the gasifier didn’t work properly.

This is just one of many examples of property management workers trying to scuttle the gasifier, says Rock.

They tried to have it condemned by boiler inspector. Then they said it would be too expensive to operate, after running calculations that involved the firing the gasifier at all hours.

In fact, the furnace only needs to run eight hours. After that, enough heat is stored in its massive boilers to heat the college through the night.

Federal scientists came up to test the machine in 2005. They found the electronic guts didn’t work, but the machine could be run by tweaking dials. However, after a brief trial run the paint began to smoke and blister.

The electronics used to work, says Rock. He helped install them. But they were later disconnected by a government electrician, causing the machine’s memory to be wiped, he says.

And the gasifier only smoked and burned because the visiting researchers “let it roar” and cranked up the heat, he says.

The Yukon government withheld more than $300,000 from the contractor hired to install the gasifier. PCL Construction Ltd, which installed the system, lost a lengthy court battle in 1992.

The withheld money is still in government coffers and is more than enough to get the machine up and running, estimates Rock. Yet the territory has plans to spend double that amount.

It isn’t clear how much money has been spent on the gasifier.

Rock estimates the machine cost less than $1 million. But the installation of the massive boilers, exhaust systems and other equipment would have cost about $5 million today, he says.

The federal scientists who tested the machine received $80,000, and there’s about $600,000 more to come.

Several other studies have been commissioned by the territory on the gasifier as well.

Interest in the gasifier revived under Pat Duncan’s Liberal government, says Rock.

She managed to stop the machine from being removed, as officials suggested.

But “she wasn’t in long enough” to get it running, he says.

Such willful obstruction would surely require a great deal of effort. So it’s curious Rock ascribes the main motive to laziness.

“They were looking for excuses not to do it because it’s a big job,” says Rock.

But what’s even more remarkable is that it’s taken the territory two decades to come up with a concrete plan to get such a potentially useful machine running.

The gasifier is designed to run on wood chips, but it’s capable of burning almost anything.

Some Canadian cities are beginning to use similar machines to burn garbage to produce electricity.

Rock sees potential to use the gasifier to burn the hundreds of tonnes of waste oil that’s currently driven down the Alaska Highway each year for disposal.

“We can burn it right here,” he says.

It could serve plenty of other purposes. The territory hopes to use the gasifier to support a local wood-chip industry, which could buoy struggling woodcutters.

What’s more, Rock envisions the Yukon becoming a research centre for gasification.

“We could manufacture them here. We could be the stars.”

Contact John Thompson at johnt@yukon-news.com.

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