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Minnesota n-butanol plant comes online

By Anna Simet | December 09, 2016

A United Kingdom company has successfully converted a Minnesota ethanol plant into an n-butanol production facility, which is now online after two years of development.

David Anderson of Green Biologics Inc., the U.S. subsidiary of U.K.-based Green Biologics Ltd., said the plant has already made its first customer shipment and facility operations are going well so far. “We have a nice pipeline of customers lined up, and it’s pretty exciting times,” he said. “We’re going to ramp up production, and that will take from anywhere from 12 to 18 months, before it’s running at full capacity. But we’re meeting orders right now, which is always a nice thing.”

The first order was shipped out via bulk tank truck and in drums to a customer in the U.S., he said, but added that the company is working on capabilities to enable shipping to European customers as well.

The plant marks Green Biologics’s first commercial facility in the U.S., adding to its existing portfolio that includes a one-thirtieth-scale demonstration plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa, and a pilot plant in Gahanna, Ohio. Green Biologics acquired the Little Falls ethanol plant in December 2014 and renamed it Central MN Renewables LLC, taking advantage of the existing grain handling and storage facilities, fermentation assets, water treatment capabilities, and feedstock supply chain—corn—already in place. On top of that, most of the existing staff was kept in place, employees familiar with the facility, new technology and, Minnesota winters, during which Anderson said he doesn’t foresee any operational challenges. “The good news is this plant already existed as a fully functional ethanol plant, they’re [plant staff] a hearty bunch up there,” he said. “It’s the same crew, we didn’t change out a whole lot, and we have even added some head count there.”

Area growers and the state supported the project, including the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, which awarded the project $500,000 in state Next-Gen funding last year.

On future development, Anderson said the company is always looking for additional assets, but it’s possible the Little Falls site could be expanded, and fairly easily. “Rather than doing another retrofit project at a different location, we can weigh the options to determine whether it’s more effective to expand the existing asset,” he said. “The whole concept of our fermentation process says that the fermenter can produce more product than we can currently distill, so to add more capacity, it really just means add some more distillation columns to the end of the process, and it’ll give us more yield.”

Green Biologics’ advanced fermentation process can convert a wide range of feedstocks into green chemicals such as n-butanol, acetone and, through chemical synthesis, derivatives of butanol and acetone. For now, and for the foreseeable future, Anderson said, Green Biologics will focus on specialty markets. “We’ve been watching how the markets are developing—the larger, more commodity-type end-uses for n-butanol, and we decided to change our strategy and become less focused on that, and more focused on specialty applications where, under our own brand name, we put products in small bottles in retail stores,” he said.

Anderson said that to date, Green Biologics has avoided the transportation fuel market. “Once oil gets back up to a reasonable number, $100 per barrel, we might look at it again, but right now, we don’t see potential in trying to slug it out. The battlefield of renewable chemicals is littered with companies, but making a run for it.”