Fiberight to produce MSW-based cellulosic ethanol

By Kris Bevill
Posted December 1, 2009, at 7:44 a.m. CST

The former Xethanol LLC ethanol production facility in Blairstown, Iowa, has been purchased by Fiberight LLC and will soon be producing cellulosic ethanol at a demonstration scale. The company recently acquired the shuttered plant for $1.65 million and is in the process of converting it to become municipal solid waste (MSW)-to-ethanol capable, marking another milestone in U.S. cellulosic ethanol achievements.

Fiberight has been operating a pilot-scale cellulosic facility in Virginia for the past three years and has developed a proprietary conversion process to produce cellulosic ethanol and biochemicals from MSW. "We've been operating in stealth mode because we don't want to make claims until we can prove them," CEO Craig Stuart-Paul said. He said the technology is now at the point where it can be scaled up to a commercial scale and Fiberight plans to prove that in Blairstown.

There are a few steps in Fiberight's process that make it unique compared to other MSW-to-ethanol production methods, according to Stuart-Paul. The first is its ability to fractionate the waste stream into its many forms and then create a homogenous feedstock, which he said has been the biggest hold-up thus far in any biochemical project from waste. Second, the company created a proprietary process that allows the recycling and re-use of enzymes, thus lowering enzyme costs to a commercially viable level. Fiberight's process does not involve acid hydrolysis or gasification of any kind, which reduces capital and operating costs and increases the plant's environmental friendliness. "Even in a reduced oxygen burn environment there are so many potential volatiles in the waste stream we're doing everything we can to avoid any kind of heat input to create volatile gases," he said. "Our goal is to have the least amount of air and water emissions of any of the waste-to-biofuel options. We view the challenges in the future to getting more plants built will be permitting as much as anything else, so we're trying to keep that in mind moving forward."

Fiberight's multistage approach includes separating plastics from the waste stream so that they can be depolymerized and used to create synthetic oil, which will then be used to power the entire facility. Stuart-Paul said that a ratio of 10 percent plastic in the waste stream will provide enough energy for the plant, eliminating the need for the use of any fossil fuels. The remaining pulp will consist of approximately 65 percent cellulose and 20 percent hemicellulose, with the remainder being ash and other unusables. Stuart-Paul plans to convert the cellulose to ethanol and the hemicellulose to biochemicals, which can be used in the plastics industry. The company chose to diversify in this manner because, according to Stuart-Paul, biochemical products from C5 sugars is currently a more economical, financially secure conversion solution for hemicellulose than ethanol production.

Richmond, Va.-based APS Engineering is contracted to oversee the $20 million conversion of the Blairstown plant. Stuart-Paul anticipates production to begin in February or March and said the 8.6 MMgy facility should produce 2 million gallons of ethanol in its first full year of operation. Fiberight rented the plant last year and ran the entire process start-to-finish with no problems and plans to ramp up the facility to commercial scale as soon as the technology is proven at a demonstration level. "There's no reason why it won't scale up, but you've still got to prove it to everyone," he said. Fiberight intends to contribute up to 1.5 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol to the 2010 renewable fuel standard.

Stuart-Paul said the conversion to commercial-scale can be completed for approximately $30 million, which is significantly less than some of Fiberight's competitors' project estimates. The entire project is being financed privately. Agreements are in place with a national paper mill which Stuart-Paul declined to name for the supply of scrap mill sludge to the Blairstown plant. Nearby Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has a population of approximately 150,000 people and Fiberight is negotiating tip fees with the local communities to take in their debris. In the future, Fiberight intends to target similar-sized communities in the Northeast, Southeast and West Coast for commercial-scale MSW-to-ethanol plants. "Our plans will make sense to communities consisting of about 150,000 people within a 25 mile radius, of which there over 400 such communities in this country," he said. Fiberight's mini-mills will each produce approximately 10 MMgy and can be constructed at a cost of $30 million to $50 million.