Fiberight still working at MSW plant in Iowa

By Holly Jessen | October 23, 2014

Despite delays, Fiberight’s plans to produce cellulosic ethanol from municipal solid waste (MSW) in Iowa are moving forward. In fact, an equity drive happening now is attracting quite a few interested people and money is starting to come in. “I’m highly encouraged,” Craig Stuart-Paul, chief executive of Fiberight told Ethanol Producer Magazine Oct. 22. “It is very tricky to get these financed and built. … You’ve got to everything buttoned up tight before you get the funding and that’s the point we are now.”

The company’s plans to build a MSW sorting facility in Marion, Iowa, and retrofit an ethanol plant in Blairstown, Iowa, haven’t moved forward as quickly as first hoped.  However, now with major permitting completed, the company has been able to start the process to finance the project, which it hopes to have wrapped up by the end of November, he said.

The goal is to start construction at the sorting facility in October or November, with the goal of getting concrete in the ground before winter. At the ethanol plant, which is expected to have an initial capacity of 3.5 MMgy and will eventually be ramped up to 6 MMgy, work has been slow but ongoing. All major permits are in place and steel has been delivered to the site. In addition, a crew of four has been employed all year and once the company has completed recently required modifications to its $25 million USDA loan and moves from the conditional to loan guarantee phase, outside contractors will be brought in. “We can’t really go too crazy on construction until we get all of that buttoned up,” he said. “What we have done is a lot of work inside the plant. So if you went inside you wouldn’t recognize it anymore.”

In July, the U.S. EPA ruled that compressed and liquefied natural gas (CNG) produced from biogas now qualifies as an advanced biofuel and, therefore, is assigned a D3 renewable identification number (RIN).

“That had a massive positive impact to us,” he said, adding that it was the catalyst in Fiberight’s decision to move the planned digester from the Marion MSW sorting facility to the ethanol plant in Blairstown. That decision triggered the modification to USDA loan paperwork.

The company now plans to digest C5 sugars in its anaerobic digester, to produce CNG, rather than covert them to ethanol.  Digesting the C5 sugars means the company can take in more waste, meaning ethanol production levels may remain about the same. “What it definitely means is we are producing more digester gas,” he said, adding that a 900,000 gallon 30 million Btu per hour vessel has been purchased and is on the way.  “We now know from our Virginia plant that food waste gives us very, very high digester gas, and the quality is such that you can get very efficient CNG fuel,” he said.

Biogas produced on site will be used to make CNG, some of which will be used to fuel the trucks that transport MSW for sorting and ethanol production, and power the ethanol plant. Used alongside biomass residuals produced during the process, the facility has the ability to be 100 percent self-sustaining, Stuart-Paul said. The company is also conducting stack emissions testing on the high-lignin content material, which is leftover at the end of the process, and has value as a clean burning energy pellet.

In the meantime, the company has been focusing a lot of its attention on its demonstration facility in Lawrenceburg, Virginia. Fibertight is expanding the facility, which isn’t currently producing ethanol. Although he can’t name names, Stuart-Paul reveals that the company has an offtake agreement with an industrial company that is buying 100 percent of the sugars produced there.

The facility has now been in operation for a total of 5,000 hours. Some of the lessons learned at that facility have resulted in design changes at the Iowa facilities. “As you have seen from some of the commercialization attempts from some of the other plants in this space, plants were built and they’ve taken a long time to get running, because they’ve run into problems,” he said, adding that the company wants to learn as much as it can at the demo plant, to refine the process before full-scale startup.

The company is grateful to the city of Marion, which not only offered tax incentives and help in procuring land for the sorting facility, but was the first to stand up and sign a waste supply agreement. The city is working toward zero-waste and wants to recycle as much of its garbage as possible, he said, while in other areas of Iowa the landfill operators want to keep handling garbage in the same, traditional way. Once the process is working well for Marion, Fiberight hopes to bring other area cities on board with MSW supply agreements.