Sunday, April 27, 2008

Grant boosts Maine biorefinery

Sun Journal

By Carol Coultas , Business Writer
Friday, April 25, 2008

AUBURN - A $30 million federal grant brings Maine closer to converting wood waste to fuel and eventually easing consumers' pain at the pump.

The Department of Energy awarded the grant this week to RSE Pulp & Chemical of Old Town and its partners, the University of Maine and American Process Inc. of Atlanta. On deck is Safe Handling Inc., the Rodman Road chemical transporter that opened the first ethanol distribution terminal in Maine in December.

"There's not a lot of local impact in the short term, but long term, this is very exciting for Maine," said Andy Meyer, Safe Handling's chief of sustainability. "The impact is pretty exciting for pulp mills (which can) start processing ethanol from waste pulp."

The university has been perfecting the technology for extracting hemicellulose from pulp waste and converting it to ethanol since 2004. The $30 million boost allows the partners to build a demonstration plant next to the former Georgia Pacific mill in Old Town, now owned by Red Shield Environmental. Total cost for the project is estimated at $90 million.

"This will be a working mill, making tons of pulp and making gallons of ethanol," said Meyer. The idea is once the process is perfected, any Maine pulp mill will be able to convert its waste to ethanol, which can be mixed with conventional gas and used as biofuel.

Meyer said Safe Handling is already distributing corn-based ethanol in Maine, transloading deliveries by rail from the Midwest. But the long-term objective of the bulk transporter has been to distribute wood-based ethanol from Maine's pulp mills.

"This is a giant step toward that goal," he said. The company put $3 million into its terminal so its distribution infrastructure would be ready for wood-derived ethanol.

Michael Bilodeau, director of the Process Development Center in the chemical and biological engineering department at the university, said the partners are getting ready to solicit bids for the construction of the ethanol plant. If all goes smoothly, it will begin producing about 2 million gallons of hemicellulose ethanol annually starting in 2010.

"We expect it will take about 18 months to complete," said Bilodeau of the construction.

Hemicellulose is now burned as a waste byproduct of pulp making. Meyer said converting it to usable energy doesn't require harvesting any additional trees or sacrificing any other natural resources.

The DOE also awarded a $30 million grant to a Kentucky company that is working on a project to convert corn cobs into biofuel, and $25 million to a Tennessee company that is developing a biorefinery for switchgrass and hardwoods.

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