Thermogen switches technology to Zilkha

By Anna Simet | March 12, 2014

Thermogen Industries, an entity of Cate Street Capital that is developing a black pellet manufacturing facility in Millinocket, Maine, has switched technology providers.

Previously, the facility was planned to use Scotland-based Rotawave’s microwave torrefaction technology, but will now employ Zilkha Biomass Energy’s steam-exploded Zilkha Black Pellet process.

Thermogen spokesman Scott Tranchemontagne said the company still believes Rotawave’s is a fine technology, but that the Zilkha technology will allow the company to ramp up production from the onset. “In other words, with Rotawave, we were only be able to start production at 100,000  metric tons per year, and with Zilkha, we’ll produce essentially the exact same product, but triple our production from the get-go,” he said.

Tranchemontagne emphasized that the Zilkha process is not torrefaction, but a thermal process that uses steam and pressure to create a hydrophobic, biocoal-like black pellet.

Besides making more pellets in less time, Tranchemontagne said the change will add more value to the project, including the number of employees hired, and more appeal to investors. “It makes us a stronger company right out of the gate,” he said.

The company’s $25 million loan guarantee from the Finance Authority of Maine was approved in October, but the technology switch will delay things a bit to allow Thermogen to educate necessary authorities. “We’ve gone back to FAME to review the new technology with them…we will be speaking to the full board to help them understand what it means for the project,” Tranchemontagne said.

The change will double the cost of the project, he added, but said it was “a good thing. The loan guarantee is at less risk—we’ll make up the rest of the project cost with equity investment—and we’re a much more attractive investment for many because we’re bigger, and we’ll be more stable right from the beginning of our operations.”

The real driving force behind technology switching was influence from potential customers overseas. “The utilities that we hope to sell our product to told us they’d like us to have more production, so they would feel more comfortable that a steady stream of product would be available,” Tranchemontagne said.

Besides reviewing the technology switch with FAME, Thermogen will also go back to state permitting authorities and the local planning board to run the project by them again and get the changes approved. “Our hope and expectation is they’ll continue to support the project,” Tranchemontagne said. “If all goes well, we expect a May or June construction kickoff.” 

In addition to the Millinocket plant, Thermogen plans to construct a 300,000-ton-per-year facility in Eastport, Maine.

Zilkha Biomass Energy has operated a 40,000-metric-ton black pellet plant in Crockett, Texas, since 2010, and a new plant set to begin operations in Selma, Ala., late this year will produce 275,000 metric tons.