A Waste-Filled Proposition

Ineos Bio brings the first commercial cellulosic ethanol plant in the U.S. online in Florida.
By Susanne Retka Schill | October 11, 2013

Driving south from Vero Beach, Fla., on a warm August day to tour the new cellulosic ethanol plant, the mounting problem of waste becomes clear. The Indian River BioEnergy Center, a project of Ineos New Planet BioEnergy LLC, lies a few miles inland on the flat landscape along Florida’s Atlantic coast. The only hill in sight is the grass and soil-covered mound of accumulated waste at the Indian River county landfill. 

Today, when local citizens drive up to the landfill to dispose of tree trimmings and other vegetative waste, they are sent a mile down the road to the biorefinery. Pickups, contractor trucks and municipal garbage trucks weigh in and back up to dump their loads. Residents of the two participating counties don’t have to pay, since their yard waste is covered by taxes, while others pay a tipping fee. 

Ineos Bio gets paid for accepting its feedstock, diverting about 100,000 tons of waste streams that were formerly landfilled and turning them into bioenergy, 8 MMgy cellulosic ethanol and 5 megawatts of electrical power. 

The management team at Ineos Bio is bemused by other differences between the petrochemical projects they’ve worked on in the past and this first-of-its-kind waste-to-bioenergy plant. “I’m used to building in places like Houston where you have mile upon mile of industrial plants,” says Chief Operating Officer Mark Niederschulte. The cellulosic ethanol plant is located a couple of miles south of Vero Beach and even though it’s just a mile away from the landfill, the company was asked to landscape the grounds following guidelines established for shopping centers, since there weren’t guidelines for biorefineries. Workers have planted about 10,000 individual trees, shrubs and perennials on the 70-acre site. 

The biggest, most obvious difference from a petrochemical plant is that instead of receiving crude oil feedstocks from a pipeline—a fungible, commodity feedstock—the Indian River biorefinery feedstock yard handles a steady stream of trucks of all sizes. “We’re getting feedstock 24 hours a day, seven days a week and closed just four days a year,” Niederschulte says. 

The product marketing side is similarly a contrast. Instead of arranging large, 30,000-metric-ton-plus shipments of product around the world, Niederschulte says, there is a ready market for every drop of cellulosic ethanol at four Florida terminals located within a hundred miles of the plant. He points out that while everything about the front end and back end—incoming feedstock and outgoing product—is as different as night and day, everything in between is a chemical plant. 

Shifting From Petro To Bio 

Like Niederschulte, many in the Ineos Bio team moved over from the company’s petrochemical divisions to work on the renewable energy project. The Switzerland-headquartered Ineos Group is a relatively new company, having been formed in 1998 to purchase refining assets in Europe. In a series of acquisitions, Ineos purchased technology rights and production facilities from companies such as Dow Chemicals, Rhodia, BASF, Chevron, Phillips, Monsanto, Hoechst and, in 2006, BP Chemicals. Sales the past two years have topped $43 billion from the 15 business segments that manufacture a wide range of polymers and chemical intermediates. The production network spans 51 manufacturing facilities in 11 countries. 

Like many other companies in 2005 and 2007, Ineos began evaluating technologies as Congress debated the energy program that launched the renewable fuel standard. In 2008, Ineos purchased a conversion technology from Bioengineering Resources Inc. and its pilot facility in Fayetteville, Ark. The BRI process design was worked out in more than 40,000 hours of operation since 2003 at the fully integrated pilot plant, using a wide variety of feedstocks. Development actually began more than a decade earlier, however, when University of Arkansas Professor James Gaddy first isolated the ethanol-producing organism in work that was patented in 1992.

BRI’s technology has been followed through the years by Ethanol Producer Magazine. In 2007, one company in the first class of cellulosic ethanol projects funded by the U.S. DOE planned to license the BRI conversion technology. A year later, Alico Inc., the LaBelle, Fla., project sponsor canceled the project. Also in 2007, a BRI representative described BRI’s work at the International Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo, saying the patented anaerobic bacterium, Clostridium ljungdahlii, was converting 95 to 98 percent of any combination of carbon-based waste to yield at least 75 to 85 gallons of ethanol per dry ton of biomass. 

Niederschulte explains that in his work at BP Chemicals and elsewhere, he has been involved with six new technologies that each required 15 to 20 years to commercialize. Ineos purchased the BRI technology because it was the closest to commercialization, and its progress has followed a typical trajectory. When the technology rights and Arkansas pilot facility were acquired five years ago, Niederschulte says they focused the work on two technologies—biomass gasification and the microbial fermentation into ethanol. The goal has been to develop an efficient gasification unit with maximum energy integration and to optimize the environment for the microbial fermentation of syngas into ethanol. The time needed for the biomass to enter the unit and exit as ethanol is less than 10 minutes. Other systems used at the Indian River biorefinery were well-established technologies purchased from others, such as the oxygen purification system from Air Products and distillation unit from Vogelbusch.

The Indian River biorefinery is a joint venture between Florida-based New Planet Energy Florida LLC and Ineos Bio. The $130 million project received a $50 million U.S. DOE matching grant in December 2009. AMEC received the engineering and procurement contract in 2010 and following the announcement of a $75 million USDA loan guarantee in January 2011, a groundbreaking ceremony was held a month later. Construction was completed in mid-2012 and commissioning began. The company announced in November that it was producing renewable power and 10 months later the plant was fully online and producing ethanol.

2 Issues With New Technologies

For those familiar with the heyday of the corn ethanol build-out, when plants were being completed and commissioned in a matter of weeks, taking a year for commissioning might raise an eyebrow. “It’s not surprising,” explains CEO Peter Williams. “There are two types of issues you deal with bringing on new technology and these are not unexpected issues. One is the interface with the site, the location you are in—noncore technology items.”

An example would be dealing with Florida’s weather. “They get 12 inches of rain here and think nothing of it,” Niederschulte points out. The Indian River site, formerly a grapefruit processing facility, has a canal and several water ponds to deal with the runoff but there was a learning curve on the best practices for dealing with feedstock processed and stored in the open. 

Another example of site-interface is the coordination between the electric utility and the biorefinery’s generator. Once there was a voltage dip in one of Florida’s frequent thunderstorms, Niederschulte recalls. “Our turbine saw that and shut down to protect itself. And we want it to protect itself. But if it shuts down, we can’t instantaneously start back up.” After the engineers improved the communications between the two systems, that problem was solved.    

“When you’re building new technology, the interface with noncore items and core technology is important, and they need to be right,” Williams says. “There is usually a shakedown period to get all that right, because it’s the first time you’ve put the thing together.” 

“The other side is learning how to drive, really,” he continues. “The unit operations are doing what we’ve expected them to do. You don’t get everything from a pilot plant. That tells you an enormous amount about the technology and gives you the confidence to build the first plant, but there are still unknowns that you have to learn. The second area is learning those unknowns, incorporating them and moving on.” Williams adds that as the CEO of Ineos Technologies, he has seen the licensing of 40-some petrochemical technologies to experienced operators. “Our customers say four years on average to build a plant, even knowing the site. In that context, [the Indian River biorefinery timeline of five years] doesn’t look abnormal at all. It looks pretty quick, and we are pleased with our team.”  

“Everything we’ve done validates our views of the technology,” Williams says. “It reinforces our view of it being a very attractive value proposition as a technology for converting waste materials into bioethanol and power.”

“We’re still learning the value proposition,” Williams adds. For a company more familiar with the petrochemical industry, turning waste into energy means it must learn about a community, just as the community must learn about having a process industry in its backyard. For a company used to working in the world of petrochemical refineries, dealing directly with consumers is new. Communities always welcome quality jobs, but much of the value proposition is about dealing with waste, particularly for a community facing the closing of a landfill. 

The Indian River biorefinery accepts vegetative waste from about 170,000 area residents. While that is the initial feedstock, the plant is permitted to use municipal solid waste and the company has successfully tested multiple feedstocks at the Arkansas pilot facility. “The organism was fed a wide range of carbon feedstocks,” Niederschulte says, including every type of vegetative waste all the way to fossil-fuel based products like tires. “It really doesn’t seem to care. The gasifier unit reduces it to carbon monoxide and hydrogen. If you can gasify it, we can use it.”   

“To our surprise, where petrochemical producers want big, big, big, the people we’re talking to say ‘I’ve got this amount of waste,’” Niederschulte says. “Of the conversations we’ve had to date, the largest has been three-times Vero, which would be 24 MMgy.” 

Those inquiries are coming from all over the world, Williams reports, and no one region dominates. The Ineos Bio team has fielded inquiries from Europe, Africa, China, Brazil and North America.

The next plant—which possibly will be built in Europe—won’t look exactly like the first, Niederschulte says. The size of the first was determined primarily by scaling up the unique syngas fermentation technology, with other components sized accordingly to match. Some of those components have been oversized while others will be beefed up in the next iteration. As operating experience is gained, maintenance needs may call for the addition of a platform or additional space to bring in a crane when needed. Williams and Niederschulte say it will likely take five plants before most of the design issues are worked through, after which efficiencies of scale will be the goal.“What we think we can do well is to drive this through to commercial business,” Williams says. Along the way, the company will also learn the balance between the two value propositions—making bioenergy in the forms of ethanol and power and dealing with waste. 

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Feedstock

Trucks of all sizes dump loads that range from green tree trimmings to discarded shipping pallets. All are shredded and piled to dry in the Florida sun. One task of the year-long commissioning process at the Indian River BioEnergy Center was to experience all seasons of Florida, and in particular learn how best to handle feedstocks in the rainy season. The largest area of the 70-acre site is devoted to feedstock handling and storage. The shredded and air-dried biomass shown in the top photo is trucked from one side of the property to the open-sided, roofed shed shown below. The biomass is dried further utilizing low-grade heat recycled from the gasifier unit to prepare the material for gasification. 

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Gasification

The Ineos Bio gasification process is a two-step, oxygen-blown technology that converts the prepared, dried biomass into a synthesis gas. Feedstocks of different bulk density, particle shape and size may be mixed together to optimize feed rate into the unit pictured below and minimize entrained air, the company says. Upon exposure to the heat in the lower chamber of the gasifier, further drying takes place followed by pyrolysis, generating a pyrolysis gas which passes through to the upper chamber where it is mixed with more oxygen, generating more heat from partial combustion. The high temperature and residence time cracks the pyrolysis gases to carbon monoxide, hydrogen and CO2.

The oxygen-blown gasification technology used in the INEOS Bio process suppresses the formation of dioxins and furans, thanks to the reducing environment in the gasifier, and destroys any dioxins and furans formed through exposure to high temperature and residence time in the upper part of the gasifier. In addition, the carry-over of volatile metals into the syngas is minimized. No tars or aromatic hydrocarbons are present in the syngas, thus the design reduces the burden on, and cost of, the syngas clean-up stage. The gasifier also operates at slightly negative pressure to prevent the escape of gases to the environment. 

“There is know-how in biomass gasification,” says Ineos Bio CEO Peter Williams. “There was a lot of development required for the gasification technology.”  

Once the gasification process is complete, the hot synthesis gas is quenched and cleaned. The recovered heat first generates renewable electricity, and the remaining energy is utilized in other processes. Once operating, the gasification process provides all of the facility’s energy needs with a surplus of between 1 and 2 megawatts exported to the grid. 

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Fermentation

At the heart of the Ineos Bio process are patented bacteria. The naturally occurring anaerobic microorganisms evolved to efficiently convert carbon monoxide and hydrogen gases generated in their natural environment to ethanol. The cleaned, cooled synthesis gas is passed into the patented fermentation process, where the bacteria are maintained in the carefully controlled environment. The fermenter is agitated to aid gas-liquid transfer. The Ineos Bio fermentation process takes only a few minutes at low temperature and pressure and with high yield and selectivity. The high performance, coupled with tolerance to variations in syngas composition and to common catalyst poisons means fewer process steps, high-energy efficiency.  Nutrients are added to provide for cell growth and automatic regeneration of the biocatalyst. The proprietary combination of microorganism, nutrients, process design and conditions produces ethanol at a commercially attractive and competitive cost. 

Ineos Bio literature explains the maximum theoretical yield for the process is about 135 gallons of ethanol per dry ash-free ton of material and reports it measured yields ranging from 75 to 100 gallons per dry U.S. ton. One reason for the higher yields than those typically achieved by processes using acid or enzymatic hydrolysis followed by fermentation is that the gasifier converts the lignin, pentose, protein and other carbon-containing fractions of the biomass into syngas for the microbes to convert. The inorganic fraction and the moisture content are discounted when making the yield calculations.

Most of the syngas is converted to ethanol and any unconverted, vent-gas is cleaned and combusted to generate additional renewable power. 

The fermenter liquid is continuously extracted, filtered to remove bacteria and nutrients, and then goes through a standard distillation process followed by dehydration with molecular sieves. Steam generated by recovering heat from the gasification process provides the energy for distillation. Water from the distillation column is recycled back to the fermenter. 

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Author: Susanne Retka Schill
Senior Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine
sretkaschill@bbiinternational.com
701-738-4922