A Trash to Treasure Alchemist

Converting an existing dry-mill corn ethanol plant to an advanced biofuel facility has accelerated Fiberight's commercialization plan.
By Tim Portz | May 21, 2013

While Fiberight certainly isn’t the only advanced biofuel company eyeing municipal solid waste (MSW) as its chief input, it may be the only producer hinging its commercialization strategy on the retrofit of a plant designed to produce conventional fuel ethanol from conventional feedstocks. A facility in Blairstown, Iowa, is a central component in Fiberight’s efforts to move its conversion approach from pilot-scale to stable and profitable commercial production. Armed with a $25 million U.S. DOE loan guarantee, Fiberight and CEO Craig Stuart-Paul look to prove that their “mini-mill” concept is capable of converting a varied waste stream into valuable advanced biofuel and coproducts.

You have extensive experience in resource recovery and are considered a pioneer in to the use of optical sorting technologies. Why is the sorting of the MSW stream so important to the Fiberight approach?

This is the key to the Fiberight process, which is highly focused on recovering recyclables, as well as organics from the waste stream. We have a scalpel approach that allows us to create eight distinct streams of materials from waste and thus convert them most efficiently. They are cellulosic pulp for conversion to cellulosic ethanol; soluble organics for conversion to biogas and potentially bioplastics; recyclable cardboard and paper; recyclable metals; recyclable plastic containers; film plastic for conversion into wax and other polymers; low-grade plastic for cement kilns, and other residues.
By demonstrating this approach, we were able to comply with the U.S. EPA’s approach to MSW as a renewable biomass feedstock, and were awarded the first pathway approval last year.

In 2009, you purchased a 10-year-old corn ethanol plant in Blairstown, Iowa. The facility continues to hold the leading edge of your commercialization plan. What was it about this facility that initially attracted you to it, and how has it remained central to your effort to grow to commercial scale?

We realized that there was a certain “chicken-and-egg” approach to developing the business. In other words, owning the facility and having a permitted plant helped us attract finances, and would significantly reduce the project construction time and risk if we could design a system that would bolt onto existing infrastructure. Given that the main feedstocks we produce from waste are organic in nature, we developed pathways along with our industrial partner, Novozymes, to convert organics to sugar. Once we had sugar, we could use the majority of the existing plant. The capital markets have bought into this strategy, we have been able to secure financing, and the project is ready to start construction. Once started, it won’t be long before we begin production.

As a corn ethanol plant, the facility was designed to yield 30 MMgy. As a waste-to-ethanol facility, the yield is 6 MMgy. Why does the output step down with MSW?

The facility is actually rated for 6 MMgy. The previous owners planned to expand to 30 MMgy, but that expansion never happened. Fortunate to us, all the civil work and infrastructure for expansion was installed, which was another thing that incentivized us to purchase the plant.

Walk us through what will occur in Blairstown throughout 2013, as the facility is transformed and brought online to produce cellulosic ethanol.

We are already into some of the detailed engineering, and have a sequential plan to bring the plant back online as a cellulosic biofuels facility. We will be starting on the changeover of the old plant next month, as we now have the data and design inputs from our Virginia demonstration plant. This will be followed by new hydrolysis systems, pretreatment, and then, finally, the waste processing center. God willing and the creek don’t rise, we could be pumping fuel by the end of the year.

What were some of the most exciting discoveries that your reference commercial facility in Lawrenceville, Va., yielded as you commenced fully integrated operations last year?

The biggest one was probably that when we put together all the diverse unit operations we had developed over the last five years, the plant worked, and worked well. Despite all the work you do, when building an integrated facility, there is always the chance for a major surprise. We managed to avoid this. Beyond that, we have been very pleased with our enzymatic conversion process, and the speed at which we have been able to hydrolyze our substrates, leading to a significant reduction in the amount of new tanks needed in Blairstown. Further, the data we are getting from the anaerobic digestion plant indicates far greater gas production; we are at times converting over 95 percent of COD (chemical oxygen demand) in eight hours less than expected. Finally, our core principal of removing the organic fraction of the waste stream is working well—we have been able to get good, clean recyclables for separation.

How do you balance the endless list of items that must keep completed to keep Fiberight moving forward to meet the milestones you, your public partners (USDA and the state of Iowa) and your private partners are all hoping for?

We have to keep laser focused on the goal: delivering a commercially viable project at Blairstown, period. We get at least one offer a day to engage with domestic and international partners to develop projects in the future, but unless we deliver Blairstown well, all of this is moot. On a granular level, we operate under a disciplined program management approach, and I ensure that all of our stakeholders are aligned with the program, thus enabling our small team to deliver key tasks and milestones. This took a while to set up, and the goalposts were still moving until quite recently. Once done, this is an invaluable tool, as it enables us to focus only what needs to get done, and when we do that, we move to what we would like to get done.

How important are strategic partners to maintaining momentum on Fiberight’s road to commercialization?

Our program management approach also allows us to identify areas where we need help, and frankly, without strong partnerships—particularly like the partnership we have with Novozymes—we would not be where we are today. If you consider that complex new technologies and processes can take upwards of 20 years to commercialize, it is foolish to think that you can do it all yourself. If you ultimately succeed in developing the perfect black box, someone else has already built a perfectly acceptable one and beat you to market. By working with a core group of focused industrial partners, the knowledge and resource pool increases exponentially, as does the momentum.