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Money down the drain? Not if Hidden Fuels can help

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When Al Cibuzar noticed heat rising around his septic system amongst the 20-below Minnesota winter in the mid-1990s, the wheels in his mind started clicking toward the possibilities of what it could provide.

He thought, if he could find an effective way to re-purpose that heat, how much money could it save him? How much money could it save cities and buildings on a broader scale?

That’s when Cibuzar and Peter Nelson joined together to answer those questions, creating Hidden Fuels with the concept of using flowing wastewater as a continuous and renewable source of thermal energy.

“For years I watched money get flushed down the drain,” said Cibuzar. “And right now with what we’ve done (in research), we’re capable in providing the numbers to say, ‘OK, this is how much money you’re dumping’...There’s a cleaning company in town that was dumping 93-degree water down the drain and that could be reclaimed to heat his incoming water and save him 20-50 percent of his hot water bill.

“The problem is the hardware is not readily available to put something in our (city’s) sewers and there’s nobody really doing this right now. We’ve found some people with a component here and a component there, but not the complete package system.”

The concept for Hidden Fuels taps into the city’s sewer pipe and uses an exchange system to heat and cool buildings. Forming a research partnership between the city of Brainerd, the Brainerd Public Utilities (BPU), Brainerd School District, Hidden Fuels and Minnesota Office of Energy Security, the team completed data collection and analysis, along with future planning beginning in the fall of 2010. Nelson said implementation is the next step. Something that requires the right funds and the right people, according to Nelson.

“I have to give a lot of credit to BPU and the Brainerd School District for being largely involved with our initial research group and being instrumental in getting all that we have done so far because they recognize they have something big to gain,“ said Nelson, who said Hidden Fuels has applied for patents for the business and added that depending on the scale of a project area, be it residential or municipal, the price of actually putting the project together can vary. “The difficult part comes in finding the funding to actually move ahead with these plans. And the context can be difficult because this business development requires a lot of different disciplines that haven’t been integrated before — mechanical engineering, civil engineering, microbiology because there’s decay that takes place, hydrology — there’s so many involved that in order to integrate this whole package and fully implement it not only do we need the funding, but we need those experts here, too.”

Cibuzar said he hopes to find those experts here, using Hidden Fuels as an opportunity for high-tech jobs for local kids.

And along with keeping it local, Nelson said that he wants Brainerd to become the local go-to for future renewable energy resources.

“You can find pockets around the country where specific technologies have developed,” said Nelson, citing Silicon Valley in California and Minneapolis for its medical electronic advancements as two such pockets. “We look at that and say, ‘Why couldn’t we become like that?’ ‘Why couldn’t we become the creative company that has the most knowledge regarding this wastewater heat recovery aspect and apply it?’

“We want Brainerd to become a pocket for that. We welcome that idea.”

JESSI PIERCE, staff writer, may be reached at 855-5859 or Follow her on Twitter at (@jessi_pierce).