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This lion eats rice hulls for breakfast -- or anytime, for that matter

Red Lion Bio-Energy and The University of Toledo have formed a unique partnership. Photos Ben French
Red Lion Bio-Energy and The University of Toledo have formed a unique partnership. Photos Ben French

One man's waste is another man's synthetic natural gas. And a dismal economy for one company is another's opportunity.

Enter Red Lion Bio-Energy Corp., a new firm that takes bio-mass products, and lots of them -- think rice hulls, wood chips, coal and petroleum coke -- and turns them into clean, usable synthetic natural gas. If that sounds too good to be true, take it another step further. This innovative Maumee-based bio-energy company is also creating green collar jobs in a state seriously starved for economic growth.

Doug Struble, the vice-president of operations for Red Lion and the company's senior engineer, said the goal is to produce additional facilities for commercialization -- facilities like the one he moved to Toledo from Denver last December.

Really. Struble loaded the giant facility on several large trucks and shipped the whole thing more than a thousand miles to its current location.

"Our goal is to try and capitalize on the assets in Northwest Ohio," he says. "We want to build these plants here. We're not interested in selling them, as much as we are in building and operating them -- and selling energy."

With a shrinking manufacturing base in the state (thanks in part to a flailing auto industry) and a construction lull, Struble says there are plenty of qualified people already in Northwest Ohio ready and willing to enter the workforce.

People like Brad Hendricks.

Two years ago, Hendricks was laid off from his job as a carpenter where he worked for 10 years.

Hendricks transitioned into a new career through Red Lion's rigorous training course, where he learned the ins-and-outs of the business -- and a few complex chemical engineering lessons along the way. He is now a jack-of-all trades for the company, using his ace skills in welding, pipefitting and plumbing.

But above that, Hendricks also represents the future of green collar jobs. He's the bona fide poster boy.

"There couldn't have been a better opportunity for me," Hendricks says. "I'm hoping this thing takes off, and I think it will."

Currently there are about a dozen employees at Red Lion, many of whom are former construction and autoworkers, but Struble expects dozens more to be hired in the coming years -- not counting the electricians, welders, crane operators and mechanics who work for the company on an as-needed basis.

The goal now, he says, is to get the product commercialized so more jobs can be added. With an unexpected economic slump, and a drop-off in the cost of natural gas, it may be a slower-than-expected process, but Struble isn't discouraged.

"I think in five years, I would like to have six to ten plants running, produced in this area," he says, adding that he expects dozens of additional jobs. "What we're doing is a classic example of green jobs. One of the reasons we came back to the Midwest, to Toledo, is the manufacturing base."

What sets the bio-energy apart is that it produces its gas by thermal decomposition rather than the environmentally unfriendly combustion process. There is no oxygen in the process, eliminating ignition. That is the part of the process that gives Red Lion flexibility with the materials it uses as feedstock.

"The only way to make this project work, is to have flexible feedstock," Struble says. "On the back end of the process, our gas is very, very clean compared with a lot of combustible gas."

With the nation's attention fixed on alternative energy, Red Lion has generated quite a buzz. The fledgling company received $50,000, courtesy of a Rocket Ventures Ignite! Grant. And the Regional Growth Partnership, an area economic development group, worked with Red Lion and several other area alternative energy companies to apply for $45.5 million in federal stimulus money. They're still waiting for word back, but if the stimulus money comes through, Red Lion will begin expanding sooner than expected.

Already the Red Lion and The University of Toledo partnered to help reduce the university's fuel cost as well as its carbon footprint. The company uses its synegas for the boilers at the university. And last year, UT provided the Red Lion Biofuel facility with an on-campus site adjacent to its steam boiler plant, so that Red Lion could connect its syngas output to the boiler system.

The partnership with the university also provides Red Lion with access to the UT faculty and various research tools to analyze progress and the results of its runs.

Rick Stansley, the chair of UT's Innovation Enterpise, says partnering with Red Lion was a natural fit for both organizations. "This represents a public/private partnership with respect to commercialization of a really green renewable (energy source) consistent with UT's role in enhancing commercial technology," Stansley says. "They moved here because they recognize the university has an excellent knowledge base, from a research perspective. With respect to enhancing commercial enterprises in the region, part of our strategy to move into the 21st century, is recognizing our role not only as a knowledge base but as a steward of the community."

Two years ago, Red Lion was selected by the U.S. Department of Energy to run a "test project" for a California city, struggling to find a use for its abundance of rice hulls, the grain's agricultural by-product. That one-off project proved successful and laid the initial groundwork for the company and its goals as a source of alternative energy.

Struble says one of the keys to Red Lion's success is its versatility--from researching ways to convert synegas into a hydrogen-rich liquid substitute for diesel engine to using its ash by-product of synegas as a fertilizer. "How do we add value to everything we make? That's what we're trying to do," Struble says. "This is the place to build something like this."

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