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iSchool prof Lee McKnight, key player in Summerhill Biomass, helps unveil solid biofuel system

October 20, 2009

Margaret Spillett
(315) 443-1069

McKnightSyracuse University School of Information Studies (iSchool) associate professor Lee McKnight, co-founder of nationally acclaimed Wireless Grids Corp., is a key player in Summerhill Biomass, which is participating, along with WGC, in a $200,000 SU Chancellor’s Leadership Project award to the Syracuse Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Development (SEED) project. The SEED Project is exploring wireless grids and biomass energy innovations for the creation of an urban greenhouse in the Syracuse community.

Summerhill Biomass Systems planted the seeds of innovation on Oct. 15 during a Fall Tech Expo at the Syracuse Tech Garden.

Summerhill, named after the Cayuga County community where the technology was developed, has pending patents across the globe on its system for grinding up timber, brush, corn stalks and other plant waste and converting the fine powder into heat.

James T. McKnight, Summerhill president and co-founder and Lee’s father, says he is eager to prove that this solid form of renewable energy is more efficient than ethanol and other types of biomass produced around the world. Central New Yorkers will be among the first to witness a locally produced energy system that has global potential.

“This is the most efficient way to store solar energy,” says James McKnight, who helped develop products for DuPont and Johnson & Johnson as an organic chemist before founding Summerhill with sons Kim and Steven in 2006. “By contrast, when you grow corn, 95 percent of what you grow (stalk) is wasted. Then you take the corn off, and then it’s an expensive process to convert to ethanol fuel.”

“The consistency of the powder is midway between baking flour and confectionary sugar,” adds Summerhill co-founder Kim McKnight. “The way it burns, we’re pretending it’s a gas, without it actually being a gas.”

Lee McKnight serves on the Summerhill board of directors and was also on hand at the expo to present the company’s technology. In his earlier work with Wireless Grids Corp., Lee McKnight created software that allows users to grid together computers, MP3 players, printers and cell phones so that those devices could share files and hardware across multiple networks. That software will be considered by the SEED Project for control of biomass energy and other systems in communities and Urban Farm/Greenhouses.  The SEED Project includes both WGC and Summerhill working alongside other innovative businesses in the Syracuse region to benefit communities, businesses and students through experiential learning.

“Innovative technology is for me a real or virtual family affair,” Lee McKnight says. “I’m extremely proud of the work my father and brothers have done in the field of renewable energy. I hope people agree with me that Summerhill has tremendous potential.”

“Through SEED, Lee McKnight and his team are exploring the frontier where green and information technologies meet,” says SU Chancellor and President Nancy Cantor. “Both their innovations and their entrepreneurial spirit resonate deeply with longstanding strengths of Syracuse University and Central New York. In a real sense, then, SEED connects our past, present and future.”

“The SEED project showcases the new possibilities that are created through interdisciplinary work,” says iSchool Dean Elizabeth D. Liddy. “Only through such an innovative project would researchers think to use wireless grids technologies and the agricultural waste of cornstalks to enhance the lives of Syracuse city residents through an urban greenhouse.”

James McKnight says his powder would cost less than heating oil, including delivery. It could also be used to heat commercial or institutional greenhouses, or in agricultural bins for drying out grain. Summerhill will be equipped to retrofit its system at homes or businesses that used heating oil or propane.

James McKnight presented his technology last year at the World Bank Alternative Fuels Symposium. The powder burns in 5/100ths to 1/10th of a second and emits no smoke or odor, even at 1 million BTUs.

Summerhill previously obtained a $75,000 grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) for feasibility studies and is currently seeking additional accredited investors.

The company is also contending for state and federal grants. Funding would be used to further develop the McKnight family’s technology to the point where it could potentially be sold to millions of residential and commercial customers throughout the northeast and beyond. The SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry and Cornell University are partners in exploring the concept.

“We feel there will be support for this because, with this system, you’re not using cultivated land,” James T. McKnight says. “You’re not using any fertilizer. Instead, you’re using leftover wood and brush, which potentially cause fires. We intercept the decay process.”

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