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Alaska project promotes small-scale, eco-friendly industry

The University of Alaska and MIT have formed a strategic partnership to promote development of small-scale, high-technology forestry, mining and other industries creating jobs for local people in remote areas with minimal impact on the environment.

The new technologies are intended to add value to raw materials which are now uneconomical to develop, allowing small businesses and cooperatives of 10 or more employees in rural or remote areas to sell a product at a price that will support high-wage jobs.

"This partnership has several visionary goals: developing exciting new technologies, improving the economies of remote and complex regions, supporting the aims and aspirations of native populations, and promoting environmentally sustainable growth," said President Charles M. Vest. "We are passing from an era of power and speed to a time of fundamental rethinking. What are the exciting technology frontiers going forward? They are the kind that this project is going to address. Lots of students will really be excited at being involved in this."

The memorandum of understanding, which also looks at the application of the idea to other states, notes that "Alaska is the first, but not the only, test region suited to this undertaking." The initial projects identified include timber-based fuel products that could be economically developed on a small scale, mini-mining with local energy sources, and small-scale energy extraction technology.

Representatives of Native corporations hailed the project. Gerald Booth, vice president of Cook Inlet Region Inc., speaking on behalf of other economic organizations representing 40,000 indigenous Alaskans, said the agreement will speed up achievement of their goals of developing resources and creating jobs for the Native Alaskans.

Gail Cheney, a Native Alaskan, graduated from MIT with a degree in urban studies and planning in 1994 and went back to her village of Kake, where every one of the 624 residents is related to her. She worked for the Kake Tribal Corp., one of 14 Native regional corporations.

"I really like this project because it's really needed," said Ms. Cheney, a 1988 graduate of Juneau Douglas High School. "At Kake, 100 miles south of Juneau, we will run out of timber in five years, so we have to look for development opportunities. It's not easy. I did cost analyses of many projects, and with just the natural resource product, either the cost of transportation was too high or the cost of power was too high to make the project feasible."

Faculty from the University of Alaska and MIT, in a report on the project, stressed the need for a technological edge to make the projects feasible. "Consider a community of 100 to 500 people located near a relatively small and conventionally uneconomical ore deposit. If the community is also located near an energy source such as coal, a river (hydro) or a gas deposit, a small-scale electrical plant can be put in place using modern fuel cell technology or hydroelectric generators." The plant would provide economical power for the community, the mining operations and the ore-to-metal processing.

"The capital investment can be reduced fifty- to a hundredfold, and jobs are created for 20 to 30 families," they said. By coupling mining of Alaska's resources of chrome, zinc, gold, silver, copper, nickel and other minerals with appropriate technology, the local business can fly out lighter loads of high-value metal rather than trying to send tons of low-value ore via snow-bound roads.

Because their overhead is low, the product will bring enough revenue at competitive prices to generate high-wage jobs, said the report by Dean Robert H. Trent of the School of Mineral Engineering at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks; Professor Thomas W. Eagar, head of MIT's Department of Materials Science and Engineering; and Professor Carol E. Lewis, head of the Department of Resources Management at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.

"Their jobs are their profit," said Professor Eagar. These tiny corporations or cooperatives could compete on price with giant corporations, provided the small organization added enough value to make the product worth $1 or more per pound, he said. The overhead costs would be low. "They don't have to turn 20 percent over to Wall Street investors. Small-scale industries will create middle-class jobs, be environmentally sustainable, reduce the capital investment required and inhibit monopolies of scale," he said.

Looking at forestry, the MIT and UA faculty said, "Forest product production in Alaska is largely round logs, chips, and until recently, pulp. Transportation costs are prohibitive for these low-value products." With a small investment of perhaps $1 million to $10 million, they said, a small-scale facility can take a small amount of wood, convert its cellulose to plastics or chemicals, drastically reduce transportation costs, and increase by tenfold or more the value received by the local workers. Cheap micro chemical reactors, a few inches long, may be adaptable to be set up in parallel for small-scale processing of wood products.

"Thousands rather than millons of pounds of wood fiber could be converted to high value plastics and chemicals," they said. Lignum, for example, could be taken out of trees and made into cellulose acetate via fermentation.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on July 16, 1997.

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