The Path to Validation

What it takes to prove the feasibility of a process technology
By Bryan Sims & Luke Geiver | June 16, 2011

Biorefining technology does not grow on trees but there is no shortage of innovative ways to turn biomass into an advanced biofuel or a biobased chemical. Some of those technologies, like the mechanical pretreatment “cellunator” approach developed by EdeniQ Inc. or the delignification pretreatment process created by GE and now refined by Lignol Energy Corp., have even sprouted into process technologies on the threshold of commercialization. We wanted to know what it took for those similar, but very different companies and process approaches to make it to where they are today. EdeniQ recently broke ground on a corn-to-cellulosic migration pilot plant, and Lignol has a pilot plant up and running already. So how did both companies turn their respective concepts into process approaches that not only pump out product, but pay off investors?

The short answer: research, testing and enough due diligence—the kind that runs into millions of dollars, so that in the end, as Ross MacLachlan, president and CEO of Lignol tells Biorefining Magazine, “you can be confident that your estimates are in the ballpark.” If you want the long answer from MacLachlan, however, you’d better clear your schedule because the journey to a feasible and validated process is a long one. As he asked us, “Do you have a month and a half to talk about it?”

EdeniQ’s Version
EdeniQ’s California-based pilot facility cost roughly $25.5 million. Because the project was partially funded by the U.S. DOE’s Integrated Biorefinery Program for $20.5 million, Peter Kilner, vice president of business development for the company, says the project was split into two parts. The first phase ran a little over $3 million and allowed EdeniQ the ability to focus solely on the design of the project. The second stage was just over $22 million and will be all about the construction and operation of the facility.

The EdeniQ version of process validation represents what a biorefining company that has received some kind of loan guarantee or grant might look like. But regardless of whether a company does actually have that financial backing from the government, Kilner says there are several things a bench-scale or pilot-scale ready technology user can learn from EdeniQ. “From my years of experience,” he says, “the important thing is to have a scale-up plant that is appropriate for your technology.” Make sure, he says, that you can get representative information that can inform a proper scale-up to commercialization.

While that scaling process is taking place, however, he explained the importance of risk, of not being too small but not being too big. “It is a trade-off,” he says. A technology needs to be big enough so that it can be representative, but it can’t get too big at the risk of unexpected problems that will be too costly to deal with and fix.

To make the leap from the phase one design stage to the build-out of the pilot facility, EdeniQ went through a process Kilner says is important for every company. In addition to constant process checks from the in-house engineering team, the company brought in and partnered with an outside firm, Logos Technologies Inc. “There was an extra effort to have an outside engineering firm,” he says, adding that it is “always good to have a double-check of your internal engineering. It’s an expensive process and you want to get it right the first time.”

Although it may seem obvious, bringing in the outside “eyes” is a must, but in the case of EdeniQ, they didn’t have a choice. “Before proceeding with the construction phase of the project,” Kilner explained, “we had to satisfy the DOE which relied on an independent engineering firm.” So for EdeniQ, it wasn’t one set of eyes or even two, three different engineering teams looked over the process.

The work with the other teams taught Kilner one very important piece of strategy to use in the scale-up process, and even the technology validation process. Partnering is a plus. Why? Because he says a partner might already have invested in similar infrastructure.

If an outside company has an improvement on a similar process, then a company like EdeniQ can negotiate a deal that can accelerate commercialization. Partnering isn’t the only strategy EdeniQ used, though. Kilner says they developed a “sophisticated risk management program,” where all the major process risks were identified and given mitigation plans so for all the key areas of risk, there is a plan B and a plan C.

Logos Technologies helped form the risk assessment program, but Logos also helped in another way, proposal writing. “We brought in Logos to write the proposal to the government because we didn’t have experience working with government contracting.” Now, there is a team of five permenant members from Logos working at the EdeniQ pilot location.

Lignol’s Version
Lignol is no different from most other companies for one reason: its concern with making a profit. And, its version of process technology validation has benefited from recognizing that. Because their process deals with lignin, MacLachlan says all of the primary process considerations “revolve around extracting the maximum value out of the lignin.” To do that, Lignol has adopted an approach they call “open innovation.” What that means, Kilner says, “is that we recognize in the biorefining industry there will be areas of expertise that will be fundamental to us and us alone, but,” he says, “we do recognize that there will be touchpoints in certain parts of the equipment we use,” and because of that, they are looking for partners. Sound familiar to EdeniQ’s approach?

MacLachlan believes Lignol has adopted a viral approach of working across different sectors in the biorefining space, as well as different industries to really provide his company with a robust set of inputs to help in the overall design of a commercial facility. And, like EdeniQ, one of those sectors is certainly an outside engineering firm. One of the greatest advantages of an engineering firm is access to that outside firm’s outside ideas, solutions and equipment packages that may not have otherwise been considered, MacLachlan says. That doesn’t de-emphasize the importance of the in-house engineers understanding the process, however, because if the scientists and engineers understand the entire process and can even create an early design package, the outside engineers can move more quickly. “I think it is a mistake that a lot of people make,” he says. Companies will go to a firm with an idea or concept instead of a well-researched plan, expecting that engineering firm to help that idea in a capacity that in most cases, they can’t.

For the companies that have performed months or even years of research, who understand their process technology and simply want to check their perceived notion of their cost benefit analysis, there are companies such as Burns and McDonnell Engineering. Ron Jones is the business development manager at the St.Louis-based firm, and like both Kilner and MacLachlan, he believes the best path a biorefining firm looking to validate the feasibility of their process is to bring in or work with partners.

“One of the really cool things about this industry is that it is evolving around that basis, even the big guys, the BPs, the Valeros, are taking a partnering approach, and for a culture like ours that is pretty exciting,” Jones says, “because we prefer to be part of a team, rather than a second tier supplier that is feeding a commodity into the system.” 

Jones says his team will look at heat mass balances, run simulations and have his team look over all of the documentation regarding the performance of a given process when they work with a biorefining company looking to validate their technology before taking the scale-up steps. Jones and his team are currently working with ZeaChem on the construction of a plant in Boardman, Oregon.

Some of the common hurdles his teams run into start when a technology developer comes in with an inadequate amount of research. “People come in sometimes with an idea and want to get a price on that, and that is difficult to do,” he says. Because of that, his job changes from company to company. Typically he says, the more baseline work and the more experience the owner of the project has, the closer the results are between the internal and external engineering teams, but they are never the same. In most cases, the process will go from baseline work research by the engineers, followed by a face-to-face visit with the internal engineers and scientists before the actual testing begins.

From his time working on projects like ZeaChem’s, Jones says he has learned several things, but two variables seem to show through in every project. The first he says, is that every process technology developer out there is looking to find readily available commercial-scale equipment that they can piece together to make their process work. The second common theme he sees is the “look” of most new advanced biofuels technologies, which he says look basically like chemical and refining processes already used today in the petroleum industry, a point he says helps his team to find answers to both performance issues as well as equipment possibilities.

EdeniQ and Lignol, even ZeaChem, are all taking different approaches to scale-up, using different technologies. By understanding their technology, by validating their costs, and, as each company we spoke to has shown, by finding the specific partner to work with, each may have a shorter, smoother ride to commercialization.

Authors: Bryan Sims, Luke Geiver
Associate Editors, Biorefining Magazine
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