Wisconsin advanced biofuel project picks up steam

By Susanne Retka Schill
Posted October 28, 2009, at 1:21 p.m. CST

The pace is picking up for Flambeau River BioFuel LLC's project to convert Wisconsin wood into biomass-based diesel. Honeywell Process Solutions announced Oct. 26 that it has been selected to supply and integrate the automation equipment for what it called the largest second-generation green diesel plant in the United States. The next big step is expected to happen next week with the commissioning of the pilot facility to turn Wisconsin wood into biofuel and waxes, according to Bob Byrne, president of Flambeau River BioFuels LLC, Park Falls, Wis. The pilot testing is being done at the Southern Research Institute facility in Durham, N.C.

"We need to operate [the pilot facility] for 1,000 hours to meet the requirements for a DOE loan guarantee and we need to prove the mass energy balance to make sure we have a project," Byrne said. "We need to know the economics are there." An earlier proposal to collocate a cellulosic ethanol plant next to the paper mill at Park Falls was dropped because the economics proved unfavorable as the study progressed. This time, the developers are utilizing gasification and Fischer Tropsch technologies to convert woody biomass into biomass-based diesel and waxes.

The pilot facility at Southern Research Institute will be using Wisconsin wood to fuel a biomass gasifier designed by ThermoChem Recovery International Inc., Baltimore, Md. The syngas produced in the gasifier will be formed into liquids and waxes using catalysts developed by Emerging Fuels Technology, Tulsa, Okla., in a FT reactor. The $257 million plant in the engineering phase for Park Falls will produce 18 MMgy of FT liquids and waxes from 350,000 dry tons of biomass per year, according to Byrne. Depending on the pressures and temperatures of the FT reactor and the activity level of the catalyst, the plant will produce up to 10 MMgy of FT waxes and 8 MMgy FT diesel or 9 MMgy of each. The plant will also be supplying steam to the adjacent paper mill.

The waxes and steam utilization are key components of the project, Byrne says. "The wax and the steam will pay the bills and assuming we get the DOE grants, the diesel component provides operating income." FT waxes are a higher value product than fuel, he explained, and currently are imported from South Africa and Malaysia. Flambeau River BioFuels has an offtake agreement in place with a wax developer who splits the raw product into components for different customers.

Co-location with Flambeau River Papers offers another revenue steam. The biofuels plant will be utilizing the wood supply currently firing a steam boiler at the paper mill, along with other waste woods and noncommercial woods. In turn, Flambeau River BioFuels will supply the paper mill with steam estimated to be worth $10 million a year. The company will also use additional waste wood and tap into wood species not currently used commercially. Byrne adds the company will be asking that sustainable harvesting criteria be followed.

Although delays in getting the pilot study launched have set the project back, Byrne said they still hope to break ground by August, 2010 and be in operation by 2012. "Those are optimistic dates," he said. The permitting process has begun, with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources currently awaiting pilot results. Discussions have begun to determine the engineering and construction schedules. The pilot results are also needed for the U.S. DOE loan guarantees and final financing arrangements. The project has received a $30 million DOE grant which was tapped to provide $4.5 million for preliminary engineering and pilot work. "We had to match that with non-federal dollars," Byrne added. "We're meeting that challenge, but it's a challenge for all of us receiving DOE grants."

Flambeau River BioFuels is working cooperatively with a second, smaller Wisconsin project that also received DOE funding. NewPage Corp. in Wisconsin Rapids is planning to use the same gasifier and catalysts in a Fischer Tropsch reactor to produce 6 MMgy total liquids and gases.