Alltech revives plans to construct the 'farm of the future'
Alltech opened one of the largest algae production facilities in the world in April, and now the company has revived its plans to build the farm of the future. The farm would truly be a closed-loop system, according to Becky Timmons, Alltech director of applications research, combining several systems including production facilities for solid state fermentation, aquaculture, cellulosic ethanol, algal biomass, livestock and dairy, all integrated together using a power and thermal cogeneration facility.
Timmons said that the idea all started a few years ago after the U.S. DOE awarded Alltech a $30 million grant to build a cellulosic ethanol facility based on Alltech’s vision for a closed-loop system that included among other processes a cellulosic ethanol production facility. “We did not go forward and build it because that was right about the time the economy crashed and banks weren’t loaning money,” Timmons told Biorefining Magazine. “We actually put it on hold, but at the same time, we kept on with our research and development.” Because Timmons’ team had already designed the entire plans and was ready to break ground in Washington County, Ky., she explained that building a facility now will still be feasible.
In addition to past work to design the elaborate, integrated “farm,” she also points to the fact that Alltech is already operating facilities throughout the world in most of the process applications that would be implemented at the farm of the future. Along with the recently opened algae production facility, the company also operates a solid state fermentation facility in Mexico and has a broad range of experience in the ethanol industry as well as the emerging aquaculture industry, Timmons said.
She said the entire process starts with a waste product like corn stover, or an energy crop like switchgrass. That biomass is used at a solid state fermentation facility to make enzymes on site. “I liken it to bread mold,” Timmons said to describe the process used at the solid state fermentation facility. “You are going to grow a specific mold on the substrate, so in this case it would be corn stover or the switchgrass. As it grows it’s going to break down the substrate and produce enzymes that are very specific to breaking down that substrate.” So, she explained, the mold is breaking down the bread for nutrients so it can keep growing, and it is producing enzymes that will break down those nutrients.
Those enzymes can then be used to break down fiber for animal feed or used to break down cellulosic material for ethanol production, she said. From the ethanol facility, the farm can then feed the onsite livestock with the DDG coproduct, and the wastewater created in the process can be used in the algae farms or back in the solid state fermentation facility. CO2 created from all of the processes will feed the algae photobioreactors as well, and the algal biomass can either be used to feed the fish at the aquaculture facility or, she added, the oil can be extracted and used for biofuel production.
The whole process allows the facility to “recycle everything through,” she said. “It is very sustainable.” And according to Timmons, that is one of the reasons why the DOE first approved the facility to receive a grant, and why the elaborate facility is actually more economically feasible than a standalone cellulosic or fermentation facility. “Adding the different parts really helped the economics. If you are looking at a facility and just trying to build it based on cellulosic ethanol, you are so dependent on pricing of oil and corn and everything else that is out there.” With this approach, she said there are so many opportunities and products going out that help balance the costs.
The team that first put together the proposal for the facility will resume Alltech’s vision to operate the farm, Timmons said. Although the team initially had plans for a 500-acre site in Kentucky during the first attempt to construct the farm of the future, she said there is no current location selected at this time; but, she added, the facility will most likely require at least 500 acres. This time around, however, Alltech will not tie the facility to any form of DOE grant because, Timmons said, it will allow Alltech “to do whatever we want.”
To view a model of the farm click here.