Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Turning 'sawdust' into fuel for future

A team that tested its formula in Gorham seeks a $50 million grant for a biofuel demonstration plant.

By TUX TURKEL, Staff Writer
October 19, 2009

GORHAM — Stephen Fitzpatrick reaches into a bag and scoops up a handful of ground waste wood. Beyond him stands a maze of pipes, pumps and vessels that fill a small warehouse.

In his other hand, Fitzpatrick holds a bottle of clear liquid. It has the aroma of ripe fruit, but it actually is a substitute for heating oil.

Using a proprietary process that involves chemicals, pressure, temperature and time, Fitzpatrick and his colleagues at Biofine Technology LLC say they've figured out how to turn what's essentially a sack of sawdust into heating and motor fuels, at a cost of roughly $2 a gallon.

For three years, researchers inside this anonymous building in the Gorham Industrial Park have been pursuing a vision that could radically change Maine's energy and economic future.

Maine is the most forested state in the nation. It's the most dependent on imported petroleum for home heating. And it has a paper industry struggling to survive.

That makes for a natural fit: Set up commercial versions of the Gorham pilot plant next to paper mills. Use Maine's plentiful wood supply to kick petroleum. Create thousands of jobs building, operating and supplying the plants.

Now Fitzpatrick and his team are at a pivotal point. They have applied for a $50 million federal energy grant, meant to help offset the cost of a $113 million demonstration plant that would pave the way for full-scale production in Maine. They'll find out in December whether they got the money.

"This Department of Energy grant will be the key to putting this technology into pulp mills in Maine," Fitzpatrick said. "It's a huge deal."

Efforts to build production-scale biorefineries are ramping up nationwide. The U.S. government is encouraging these plans because of their promise to convert wood, farm waste and other low-grade materials into fuel. By contrast, the ethanol now mixed in gasoline has become controversial because it relies on food crops, namely corn.

In Maine, a second biorefinery effort is under way at a former paper mill near Bangor. Old Town Fuel and Fiber is in the final stages of negotiating a $30 million federal energy grant that would cover half the cost of a similar demonstration project.

Both companies are working with the Maine Technology Institute and the Forest Bioproducts Research Initiative at the University of Maine. As it turns out, the different technologies being pursued by Old Town and Biofine complement each other, and the firms are likely to end up working together at a tech center the university is preparing to build inside the Old Town mill.

Although Old Town's ambitions have been well-publicized, the work in Gorham has gone on largely unnoticed in Maine. A reporter and photographer from the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram last week were the first media to tour the plant.

The Gorham plant is capable of turning a ton a day of biomass – including wood, pulp, recycled paper and food waste – into 20,000 gallons of liquid fuel a year. The demonstration plant the team wants to build would be sized to handle 50 tons a day and make 1.2 million gallons a year. It would create an estimated 125 jobs in operation and supply.

A full-scale commercial biorefinery would convert 1,000 tons a day into 28.7 million gallons of liquid fuel a year and create 486 jobs, the company estimates. No one has done this yet, although a commercial plant is being built in Georgia.

The technology being used in Gorham has been under development by Fitzpatrick since the 1980s. It was validated at a Glens Falls, N.Y., pilot plant in a partnership with a subsidiary of energy giant Royal Dutch Shell.

In 2006, Shell spent $5 million to build an upgraded test plant in Maine. Gorham was chosen because it's near the wood supply, Fitzpatrick's home in Massachusetts and two partners – Paul Nace and Norman MacIntyre of Maine BioProducts – who also were working on biofuels in Maine. The two efforts have since merged under the Biofine Technology LLC name.

Shell's ambition was to develop motor fuels, and various car engines were run on the fuel produced in Gorham. But seal problems on early fuel-injection models led Shell to end its involvement.

That left Fitzpatrick, Nace and MacIntyre to pursue what they decided was an easier and more logical path – home heating oil. The Northeast burns 4 billion gallons a year, in a market concentrated near underused paper mills and abundant forestland.

Despite ready demand, the men don't expect homes to be heated with pure biofuel right away. Until several full-scale plants are built, it makes more sense to mix biofuel with regular heating oil, just as vegetable-based oil is now blended with heating oil and diesel fuel.

Scientists have come up with different technologies to produce biofuels.

Old Town Fuel and Fiber uses fermentation to extract sugars that can be converted to ethanol. Biofine's process is chemical, rather than biological. Its product is levulinic acid, an organic compound that's ultimately turned into ethyl levulinate, a chemical that serves as a platform to make fuels, plastics, pharmaceuticals and – producing a fruity smell – fragrances.

Inside the plant, the biomass is dumped in a large hopper, mixed with acid and subjected to steam and high heat for 15 minutes. The resulting liquid moves through a system of pipes and tanks, where it's blended, turned into a vapor and condensed. The process also makes marketable byproducts and a carbon char that can produce steam and electricity for the plant. Biofine says a larger plant will make enough surplus green energy to sell on the power grid.

Don't look for trucks delivering this Maine-made biofuel any time soon, however.

If Biofine receives full funding from the federal government, and it can raise $63 million in additional private capital, a 50-ton demonstration plant could be operating by 2014. After testing and data collection, a commercial plant could come online by 2017, the company estimates.

In its application for federal money, the company says 16 regions of the country could support commercial-scale Biofine facilities, including multiple locations in Maine.

This potential, even if it's far off, is exciting to the state's heating oil industry.

The fuel produced in Gorham has been run full-strength in a test oil burner that needed only a minor pump-seal replacement to operate reliably. Late this summer, national oil heat scientists visited the Gorham plant and reviewed the process.

They concluded it's for real, which was encouraging to Jamie Py, executive director of the Maine Energy Marketers Association. The trade group recently launched a campaign to get oil dealers to embrace biofuels and energy efficiency.

"It's an indigenous product from a biorefinery," Py said. "It has low greenhouse gas emissions, we already have the infrastructure and it will keep jobs in Maine. It makes a lot of sense. Hopefully it can happen."

University of Maine researchers say the chances appear good. With billions of dollars in economic stimulus money available, and a congressional mandate to reach aggressive quotas for biofuel blending, Biofine's timing may be just right.

Biofine has made it to the final round of the grant program. Competitors aren't using the same thermo-chemical process, said Mike Bilodeau, assistant director of the university's forest bioresearch group, and the government has already invested millions in fermentation technology. That gives Biofine a distinction, with a process that appears to be more cost-effective than fermentation at a commercial level, he said.

"It has a lot fewer issues when you scale up," Bilodeau said. "I think the Department of Energy will have a very favorable view."

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at: tturkel@pressherald.com

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