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May 4, 2017

Promising new opportunity shaping up at former Old Town Fuel and Fiber

Courtesy / University of Maine
Courtesy / University of Maine
At the University of Maine Technology Research Center in Old Town, professor Clay Wheeler, left, and an undergraduate researcher work on an organic acid salt conversion to jet fuel. The new Biomass to Bioproducts Pilot Plant will produce a large quantity of such salts to further research on UMaine's patented conversion technology. The first biomass to be used: cardboard waste.

Biofine Technology, a Massachusetts company, will partner with the University of Maine's Forest Bioproducts Research Institute on a pilot project at the former Old Town Fuel and Fiber to process and convert biomass into chemical products such as fuels and bioplastics.

The Bangor Daily News reported the Framingham, Mass.-based company — makers of liquid fuel, chemicals and other advanced materials from wood — plans to locate its first major project in an industrial park planned for the former pulp and paper mill in Old Town.

Charlotte Mace, executive director of the group Biobased Maine, told the BDN it was encouraging to see the Old Town plant rejuvenated.

"To get it going again and make high value bio-based chemicals is excellent and exactly what we need," Mace said.

Old Town Fuel and Fiber, a wood pulp manufacturer, suspended operations in 2014.

UMaine plays key role in project

Installation of the new biomass-to-bioproducts pilot plant was made possible by a partnership between UMaine and Biofine Technology.

UMaine's Technology Research Center in Old Town started a 100-hour demonstration of continuous operation of the pilot plant on Monday to show its capability of processing up to one ton of woody biomass per day into chemicals that can be used to manufacture bioproducts, including biofuels, biochemicals and advanced materials.

"Chemicals made from biomass could one day be an important revenue source for the forest economy," UMaine stated in a news release about the pilot. "Organic acid platform chemicals, as they are known in the industry, have multiple uses, including the production of plastics and other specialty chemicals."

At UMaine, these "green" chemical intermediates are critical in the university's patented conversion technology to produce diesel and jet fuel from woody biomass, developed by the Forest Bioproducts Research Institute.

Biofine acquired the pilot plant in 2015 when Old Town Fuel and Fiber closed and its contents were auctioned. To ensure that the valuable asset remained in Maine, Biofine paid $200,000 to have the pilot plant disassembled and moved to the UMaine's Technology Research Center, which is located on the site of the former Old Town Fuel and Fiber facility.

UMaine reassembled the pilot plant with a grant from the Maine Technology Institute's Cluster Improvement Program and some funds from previous Maine Technology Asset Fund award. This was further supplemented with federal funds from a recent Defense Logistics Agency award.

Scaling up for commercialization

The Biomass to Bioproducts Pilot Plant, which occupies 10,000 square feet in the TRC, is the first step in scaling up UMaine's jet fuel technology, which is still in bench-scale production. FBRI researchers hope to add another pilot plant that would use the platform chemicals to create larger quantities of biofuel — prototyping for commercialization. The two pilot plants would fully demonstrate the potential of creating diesel and jet fuels — and the chemical ingredients — entirely from biomass.

The plant is the newest addition to UMaine's research facility, which is dedicated to prototyping and demonstrating technologies and new products to benefit commercialization of emerging bioeconomy sector. UMaine's other pilot plants focus on pulp and paper, food and nanocellulose.

"Biofine is contemplating a small commercial deployment at 100 tons of biomass per day for chemical production," FBRI Director Hemant Pendse said in the news release. "The Biomass to Bioproducts Pilot Plant will help provide the information needed to make that possible."

Biofine has been assisted in its recent efforts by a New York state-based construction firm that is providing pre-construction services in support of the planned commercial venture at the former Old Town mill that's being repurposed as a multi-tenant industrial park by a group of investors based in Maine, according to the UMaine release.

The 100 hours of continuous operation demonstrated this week provides reliable engineering data for companies considering commercialization of products made from biomass.

"FBRI is well positioned to help Maine communities attract new investments in forest bioeconomy for producing bioproducts (fuels, chemicals and advanced materials) from biomass at scales ranging from 100 to 1,000 tons per day dry feed," UMaine said in its release.

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