Stepping Up to a New Facility

Nebraska town grows enzymes and community
By Luke Geiver | June 12, 2012

If you’ve never heard of Blair, Neb., no worries—if you know anything about ethanol, someday you will. Just ask Kris Ronnei, a chemical operator who lives in Omaha, 30 minutes south of Blair, about his place of employment and why he makes that drive to work every day. When people ask Ronnei what he does, or who he works for, he says, Novozymes in Blair. “Most folks ask what that is,” he says. After he tells them what enzymes do for ethanol, he goes into a different story, telling them how “someday very soon, with the use of our enzymes, people could theoretically make ethanol fuel out of any plant material, yard waste, tree branch, grass clippings or corn stalk. That usually gets their attention.”

But for the folks who already know about the promise of cellulosic ethanol, there’s more to the story of Blair. Speak to Mark Young, another chemical operator who makes the drive from Omaha to Blair every day, or Fred Reikowsky, who after living in North Carolina for 15 years, moved to Blair to manage the facility. Both of them could tell you what the largest, newly operating enzyme production facility in North America has already done.

A Home for Enzymes
Soon, the enzymes used in many of today’s ethanol facilities, and in future fermentation-based advanced biofuel projects, will come from the new facility on the Blair Biorefinery Campus, says Reikowsky. He is the general manager of the $200 million Novozymes facility built next to Cargill’s Natureworks LLP facility and another facility operated by Evonik.  The Novozymes’ facility has already held its grand opening, and just begun producing enzymes.

The plant will employ the production system used at Novozyme’s other facilities. Much simplified, the path of an enzyme made at Blair looks like this: First, microorganisms are genetically engineered in a lab. They are then isolated and grown through submerged fermentation in a rich broth of nutrients (corn starch, sugars or soy grits) and a lot of oxygen at a large scale. As the organisms grow, they produce enzymes, which are filtered out, tweaked and shipped. “Operational parameters like temperature, pH, feed rate, oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide formation are measured and carefully controlled to optimize the fermentation process,” says Reikowsky about the process that allows Novozymes to produce at a large scale to meet demand. Although the enzyme production process can utilize both batch and continuous fermentation, the most important piece of technology used is the strain of microorganism, he says. The Blair facility’s main focus is, and will be, on pumping out the most efficient enzyme on the market, and there won’t be much work on the research side of enzymes. That will be for other facilities, he adds, using the 14 percent of annual revenue the company sets aside each year to improve the entire process.

Making enzymes in Nebraska isn’t just about fermentation and super bugs in the new facility. It’s also about Nebraska. On the east edge of Blair is the Missouri River. Reikowsky and his development team were able to utilize the river to bring in the huge equipment needed for the facility. The company enhanced an existing port to offload that equipment, and brought in other supplies by rail and truck during the three years it took to build the facility.

Before the Danish-based company even decided to build in Blair, however, Reikowsky says a number of places and factors were considered, including the possibility of a strong partnership with city and state governments, the distance to raw materials, energy costs, the distance from customers and an educated and highly-trained local workforce.

Paula Hazlewood, executive director for the Gateway Development Corp., a part of the Greater Omaha Economic Development Partnership, became educated about enzymes when she began working with members of Novozymes to attract them to Nebraska. “I’ve learned that [the enzyme and ethanol industries] can be volatile at times,” she says, “but I’ve also learned that these companies truly care.”

By caring, Hazlewood doesn’t just mean Novozymes commitment to the surrounding community or the environment; she also means the company’s ability to run a successful facility by providing customers with product in a timely manner. “We were close to losing the Novozymes project to Iowa,” she says, but after all of the work that included site, infrastructure, labor and tax incentive information, she says she just learned that an old saying still applies. “I’ve learned,” she says of her experience, “to never take ‘No.’ for an answer.”

Partnering in Training
A community college in Omaha stepped up to fill the need for a highly trained local workforce to land the new plant. The Metropolitan Community College provides career and technical degrees, one of which is based on ethanol—only at MCC it’s a little different. “We went a little bit broader,” Bill Owen, associate vice president of academic affairs, says of the program his team created. “We call our program a process operations technology program,” he explains. Give credit to Owen for identifying a need for a broader view of what the ethanol industry in his region requires. But don’t give it all to Owen, Novozymes deserves some credit as well. Before MCC began the process operations technology program—a curriculum that includes courses on the basics like stationary engineering (boilers and pressure vessels) and applied physics, in addition to the more specific topics like instrumentation and control—they hashed out the curriculum with the Danish enzyme company. “We started from before we had any bricks and mortar, before we had any equipment,” Owen says of the partnership. “We had the college and the industry sitting down together and making the decisions, not only as to what this program should ultimately be about, but how it was going to come to be.”

That discussion led to a newly remodeled and user-friendly campus building paid for by Novozymes, and staffed by MCC. More importantly, after only one year of operation, the program has two groups in the program, one of which is already employed at the Blair Biorefinery Campus. “We are trying to fill the pipeline with generally skilled individuals who can be the future workforce in these industries,” Owen says of the program’s early success. The school has already spent over $200,000 on software and other equipment that allows the students to move beyond pencil and paper and actually witness how a tweak to pressure here, or a change to power there, affects the outcome of a process technology, that not coincidentally, could be used in an enzyme manufacturing plant.

Owens says the newly trained students will be ready to unite technology and agriculture. Novozymes wants the students to understand and touch and feel the sorts of things they want them to be working with as part of their education. But, what they say again and again,” Owens says, “is that we have to have someone who doesn’t just react to A plus B equals C, but instead can think about A and B and all of the possibilities it might equal.”

As the community college works to fill the pipeline with newly trained workers, the small town of Blair, population 8,000, prepares to welcome them. Take Mark Young, a chemical operator at the facility. Young’s wife works in Omaha, but someday, he hopes to move to Blair. He’s been to China and North Carolina because of his role with the company, and in a time when the word “job” is more important than words like “time,” or “place,” this is the best part about Young’s take on the facility in Blair. “The challenge for me,” he says, “has been trying to be involved in everything that is going on around here.”

Ronnei, the chemical operator telling folks in Omaha about his work in Blair, also dreams of moving to Blair someday (he bought his house in 2005 during the boom and doesn’t want to take a hit by moving quite yet). He is also an example of an employee enamored with the change happening in Blair because of Novozymes. Before 2011, Ronnei had no experience in a production plant setting, but now he’s starting to get it, he says, and so is the rest of the community. “Everything is so big, busy and exciting, all at the same time,” he says. “It took a bit for me to get used to it all. There is always something to do, and so many new things to learn, it was easy to get overwhelmed,” he says of his early time at the plant.

Sarah West mixes food for organisms at the plant that are used in the biofuels industry. She’s also a chemical operator and from Omaha, and like Ronnei, was overwhelmed by the intricate, multistep process it takes to produce a single enzyme. She’s getting it now, however, she says, and she might speak for everyone in the community when she talks about the effect the facility is having on the community. As the enzyme facility grows, she says, so will the town.
Author: Luke Geiver
Associate Editor, Biomass Power & Thermal
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