Brewing Up Biomass

A novel and multi-faceted vertical farm and business incubator in Chicago will source its heat and power from a brewery waste anaerobic digester
By Lisa Gibson | April 03, 2012

When Jesse Evans and his brother Samuel, founders of New Chicago Beer Co., saw the wide open first floor of Chicago’s The Plant and were told a brewery would eventually occupy that space, they immediately knew they wanted to be involved.

The pair had been making beer in California, but they were eager to return to their home city of Chicago and set up shop there. The Plant, a developing vertical farm and food business incubator, presented a perfect opportunity. 

So New Chicago Beer is now preparing the space for its 8,000-barrel operation, just one aspect of a developing multi-faceted and integrated project that will occupy The Plant, a 93,500-square-foot, three-story building. The brewery, expected to be operational in the middle of this year, will be integral for The Plant, as it will provide a waste stream for the in-house anaerobic digestion process that will eventually produce 380 kilowatts of energy to heat and power all 20 expected tenants of the enormous building. “It’s quite a substantial amount of beer and subsequent brewers grains,” Evans says.

“We’re very excited because they’re a very key component of what we’re doing,” says Melanie Hoekstra, operations manager at Plant Chicago, NFP, the nonprofit that will own and operate several aspects of The Plant, as well as conduct research and educational programming regarding the facility’s operations. The combined-heat-and-power (CHP) process will produce about 2.1 million Btu (MMBtu) per hour when fully operational, processing about 10,000 tons of brewery waste from New Chicago Beer and other breweries per year. Initially, the process will digest about 5,000 tons annually, until the building is at full capacity and can utilize all the energy that can be produced with 10,000 tons of feedstock.

“We hope to just produce enough for our own needs and any extra we’re just going to put back on the grid for free,” Hoekstra says. “We’re not going to try to sell it.” In Illinois, she explains, only a very small amount of energy can be sold to the grid before the generator is considered a utility.

“The idea is we’re going to produce lots and lots of grain that will be useful, not just for anaerobic digestion, but will also be used [by all the other tenants],” Jesse Evans says, citing additives in mushroom growth, fish feed and other developing operations within the building. “That biomass will move all around.”

The Plant

The plans for the facility are quite novel and carry a crucial net zero energy goal. The building is a former meat packing plant and was purchased a year ago for realization of plant director John Edel’s self-sufficient indoor food growth vision. With food-grade infrastructure including high-quality stainless steel and floor drains already in place, the vertical farm, a concept where food is grown on vertically-inclined surfaces, is a perfect fit. “The fact that we’re producing food is a function of the facility itself,” Hoekstra says. “We’re reusing probably 80 percent of the material that was in the building. We adjust as we go and realize the advantages we have.”

Currently, the indoor farm is growing mostly greens, using horizontal systems that consist of flat beds filled with water and floating rafts to hold the plants. “But probably in the next few months, we will be building prototypes for vertical systems, meaning floor-to-ceiling systems,” Hoekstra says. In that scenario, the plants will grow on plastic boards sitting vertically at a 10- or 15-degree angle. Holes will allow the roots to sit inside the boards, while the plants grow out from them, she explains. “There are lots of different ways you can do this. I’ve also seen people use netting.”

Water will be dispersed through a specialized system that prevents trickling and ensures all the plants get the nutrients they need. Taking the concept further, The Plant has implemented an aquaponics design, connecting fish and their waste to the plants. “The plants actually clean the waste for the fish,” Hoekstra says. The facility will grow freshwater fish, currently focusing on tilapia.

While most of the facility’s elements are still under development, about 250 plants are currently harvested per week, yielding about 75 pounds of food per month. With all aspects of the project firing on all cylinders and the vertical farms in place, Hoekstra expects The Plant will produce three to six times more food, sold to restaurants and eventually farmers markets.

No fish are being harvested currently because the practice just recently was legalized in Illinois, but The Plant will harvest about 160 pounds of fish every other month.

Besides the vertical farms, aquaponics, brewery and anaerobic digester, the single building houses a bakery and a kombucha tea producer.

And that’s still not all. The Plant will also serve as a food business incubator with a two-pronged model. It will include a commercially licensed kitchen that can be used any time of the day or night and will be invaluable to start-up businesses with low profit margins that are currently using restaurant kitchens and have to operate in the middle of the night when the restaurants aren’t open, Hoekstra says. “This is a great setup for small businesses because having a kitchen of your own is very, very expensive.” The second aspect of the food business incubator will be 10 tenant kitchens available for rent by individual companies. Plant Chicago NFP will own and operate the vertical farm and food business incubator.

“There’s a lot that’s going on in the building,” Hoekstra says.

Digester Development

Because of its innovation and positive spirit, support for the digester and the plan for The Plant as a whole has come from city officials and community members alike, according to Hoekstra and Evans. Even though the plant is near a residential neighborhood, both say the project has encountered no opposition and those residents are eager to finally see action in a building that has been vacant for four years.

“We’re turning a building that was meant to be torn down into at least 125 jobs and that’s a number that’s going to grow,” Evans says. “To do that around a green technology is incredibly exciting. We’ve had nothing but support here.”

Alderman Pat Dowell has been integral in helping plans for the facility get off the ground, and Hoekstra says even Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has expressed interest in the project. “That’s really flattering and exciting,” she says. “The support has been really overwhelming.”

The anaerobic digester has to be operational by the end of June 2013, in accordance with guidelines set forth for state funding it received. “We should have no problems getting it done by that time,” Hoekstra says. A total of two state grants—one in Recovery Act funds and the other from Illinois’s food scrap composting program—will pay a total of $1.5 million toward the anaerobic digestion system. In addition, The Plant closed on a loan in February from Chicago Community Loan Fund, a nonprofit bank that is supportive of the operation. “They’re really excited about what we’re doing,” Hoekstra says.

Heat from the CHP system will go to the brewery, as well as to heat the rest of the building. “We have to boil 9,000 gallons of water per batch,” Evans says of the beer-making process. “That takes a massive amount of energy, so we’re using gas right off the anaerobic digester to burn in steam boilers and we’re using steam heat instead of burning fossil fuel underneath the kettles.”

As if The Plant weren't facilitating enough reuse and renewable concepts, the CHP generator itself, from Alcor Energy, is made of old, repurposed Air Force jets, Evans adds. Construction work on the brewery began this winter and the CHP generator was delivered in mid-February. “Everything is progressing very well there,” he says.

Evans eagerly divulges the numerous reasons he and his brother chose to develop their next brewery inside the facility, fulfilling a crucial aspect of its self-sufficient concept. He can’t wait to be a part of the intricate, integrated and progressive design of The Plant.

“It’s been inspiring since the first day we were in here,” he says.

Author: Lisa Gibson
Editor, Biomass Power & Thermal
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