hed: Aberdeen alchemy to turn wood into gas

By Stephen Singer

Daily Journal

ABERDEEN - A Baton Rouge, La., chemist is banking on Northeast Mississippi's plentiful supply of wood to replace corn as a key ingredient of ethanol.

Stan Pearson cited the region's forests and transportation network, including the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, as he announced Tuesday the planned opening in February of an ethanol production plant in Aberdeen.

Surrounded by city and Monroe County officials at the Aberdeen-South Monroe Chamber of Commerce, the founder of Pearson Technologies Inc. described how his chemical process puts a "new twist" on the decades-old technology of ethanol production.

Since the late 1980s, Pearson Technologies has tested and developed a system that processes renewable solid wastes such as sawdust, bark, tires and sewage sludge with carbon and hydrogen, producing ethanol.

"There's a huge market out there," Pearson said.

When it is blended with gasoline, ethanol raises octane levels.

The gas ingredient is credited with cutting automobile pollution, which helps states comply with increasingly tight federal standards to reduce air pollution.

Blending ethanol with gasoline also cuts oil imports.

The technology for using wood to produce ethanol is available, but financing is scarce, Pearson said.

The company, which will employ between 12 and 16 workers, will be a "financial demonstration plant" to prove to bankers that the technology is worth the investment risk, he said.

Pearson is scouting other potential sites in the region to build on what he expects will be the success of the Aberdeen site.

The plant would process about 45 tons of wood waste daily, which Pearson said is a small operation. He said he would have to build 300 plants with a capacity of 200 tons a day to garner half the U.S. market.

Pearson, 66, said his company will finance the Aberdeen operation. He did not disclose the amount of the investment. But he said it is "a lot less" than $5 million typically required of an ethanol production plant startup.

Two state agencies helped Pearson's proposal. The state Department of Environmental Quality gave Pearson a $250,000 grant to purchase equipment that will use recycled tires in the production of ethanol.

The firm also received a $75,000 grant from the state Department of Economic and Community Development. The funding will be used to purchase equipment that produces gas.

Most operations at the plant, which will be built on Meridian Street, will be primarily outdoors. The only interior space will be in a control room and a shed to protect wood from rainwater runoff.

Much of the nation's ethanol production is in the Midwest, where producers rely on an abundance of corn. But Pearson, a chemical engineer for Dow Chemical from 1951 to 1984, said producing ethanol from wood is cheaper.

In addition to the two state agencies that helped Pearson, the chemist and businessman received advice from Don Hill, a professor of chemical engineering at Mississippi State University.

Pearson "has found a niche and he can make money out of it," Hill said.

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