City trash-to-biofuel project takes step ahead for Blairstown, Marion

"First-in-the-nation" plant to convert municipal solid waste and other trash into cellulosic biofuel

Rick Smith
Published: April 7 2014 | 5:39 pm - Updated: 8 April 2014 | 8:08 am in

BLAIRSTOWN — No Martians are landing, but loads of steel began arriving on Monday for the takeoff of project to expand and revitalize the shuttered ethanol plant here to ready it for something remarkable.

By year’s end, the plant’s owner, Maryland-based Fiberight LLC, hopes to open what company CEO Craig Stuart-Paul said will be the "first-in-the-nation" plant to convert municipal solid waste and other trash into cellulosic biofuel to mix with gasoline just as corn-based ethanol is.

Fiberight calls its product trashanol.

Danny Viall, the Blairstown plant’s general manager who lives in nearby Belle Plaine, on Monday said the plant has been closed for several years now and so residents won’t get enthused about the transformation and expansion until they see the steel stacked next to the plant on Monday actually going up.

"Then they’ll realize something is happening," Viall said.

He said concrete foundation work will come first, but the steel and walls should start to rise in June, Viall said.

The plan is to expand the size of the plant fivefold, and 27 additional tanks, some 45 feet tall, also are part of the project, Leif Stokes, consulting project manager from tank specialist Winbco Tank Co. of Ottumwa, Iowa, said at the plant on Monday.

If all goes as planned, the plant should be running by year’s end, and the number of Fiberight employees should increase from the current four to 20, Stuart-Paul said Monday.

No one is paying more attention to the progress at Blairstown than the city of Marion, 45 minutes east. In Marion, Fiberight — in tandem with its expansion and renovation project in Blairstown — plans to start construction this summer of a "materials resource-recovery facility."

This facility will take in municipal solid waste and other trash much like a landfill, where the trash will undergo an initial separation and sorting.

About 50 percent of it that contains organic material will be hauled to the Blairstown plant, another 30 percent, including items such as cardboard, cans, wood and glass, will be recycled and about 20 percent will go to the landfill, Stacie Johnson, education and market development spokeswoman for Fiberight, said Monday.

Chad Heiman, communications manager for the Marion Economic Development Co., visited the Blairstown plant on Monday with Johnson.

In a first phase of operation, Fiberight anticipates taking in about 350 tons of trash a day at its Marion facility, from where 17 semi-trailer trucks of the sorted trash then will make their way daily to the Blairstown plant.

Inside the Blairstown operation, the organic trash will be deposited in a big drum to be separated, washed and cooked. From there, sugar water will go to the existing ethanol plant’s fermentation and distillation process for conversion into cellulosic biofuel while a cakelike material goes to an anaerobic digester to be converted to biogas to help fuel the plant.

Plastics, such as trash bags in residential garbage, will be converted into polymer wax for use in the manufacture of, for instance, plywood and particle board, CEO Stuart-Paul said.

"This is kind of a milestone for us," Stuart-Paul said of Monday’s arrival of construction steel at the Blairstown plant. "We’re beginning."

Fiberight has secured a $25 million loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s biorefinery program as well as a $2.9 million grant from the Iowa Power Fund to support its Iowa project.

Stuart-Paul put the cost of the Blairstown plant’s transformation and expansion at about $40 million and the first phase of construction of the Marion facility at about $10 million with a $5 million expansion a possibility.

The company also is negotiating with the city of Iowa City to build a resource-recovery facility at the Iowa City Landfill if the Blairstown project succeeds.

Stuart-Paul said Fiberight has seven years and $20 million invested to date in the science and processes and a demonstration plant in Virginia. That experience is now being put into a market-scale operation in Marion and at the Blairstown plant, which the company purchased in 2009.

"This is pretty wild stuff," Stuart-Paul said. "This is a whole new way of dealing with waste. …. If this works well, here we are in Iowa doing something that the rest of the nation can (seek to do)."

Marion is providing some tax incentives to Fiberight to help with the company’s Marion investment as that city works to become a "zero-waste" community.

Looking on is the Cedar Rapids/Linn County Solid Waste Agency, which now may have to share garbage with Fiberight. The agency depends on revenue from landfill fees to help run local recycling and education programs.

The agency recently opened its own $12 million resource recovery facility a few miles from the one Fiberight is preparing to build in Marion.

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