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Some gains and some strains on the US energy front

Can a little pile of what look to be broken-up pretzel sticks really be the wave of the energy future? Maybe so.

The "pretzel sticks" are Woodex fuel pellets, which can be made from any fibrous wood or agricultural waste. They were developed by Rudolf W. Gunnerman, president of Bio-Solar Research and Development Corporation in Eugene, Ore. The people franchised to make Woodex pellets claim they are "the first real breakthrough in refining biomass for energy on a large commercial scale."

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"It's the hottest thing on the market," says an engineer from Virginia whose firm is considering getting a Woodex franchise.

There are still some bugs to be worked out, but the three-year-old process has already had some impressive success stories. Western States Hospital in Fort Steilacoom, Wash., converted from gas (with coal as an emergency backup) to Woodex in 1977. The switch is saving an estimated $100,000 to $125,000 annually. And besides, going to Woodex saved the hospital another $225,000 it would have cost to bring its coao-burning equipment up to federal antipollution standards.

Meanwhile, Woodex licensees are putting up plants as fast as they can. Ten are already on line in the United States and Canda, and they plan to put up another 100 within the next 18 months. This production could save up to 30 million barrels of oil annually, according to Fred M. Dellorfano, president of the licensees' association.

Plans are also in the works to test-market the product for residential use this winter in parts of New England and the Pacific Northwest. This expansion of the industry will require setting up a distribution network, since current Woodex customers are industrial or institutional users that contract for direct delivery from the plants.

Woodex franchises, along with others in the wood-pellet industry, are cheering about the funds to be made available to them under the biomass portion of the National Energy Security Act, as the synfuels bill is properly known.

Of the $1.45 billion to be distributed through the Departments of Energy and Agriculture over the coming two fiscal years, $700 million will be available for price and loan guarantees, as well as purchase agreements, for biomass energy projects.

A big advantage of biomass is that the facilities can be built and put into operation in just a few months, instead of the years it is expected to take to get the synfuels industry off the ground.

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Woodex yields only about two-thirds as much energy, pound for pound, as coal does: about 8,500 Btus for the pellets as against 12,600 for coal. But a publication of the Solar Energy Research Institute, speaking of wod pellets generally and not just Woodex, says, "We find that the real energy price of pelletized fuel can be competitive with stoker coal, lower than oil or natural gas, and higher than unprocessed fuel."

The Woodex people say their product finds a ready market in industry. The pellets can be used in existing coal-fired boilers with little or no convention cost, and without the cost of pollution-control equipment. Conversion costs from oil or gas to Woodex are also said to be low.

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