Clean-Tech Startup Turns Trash into Renewable Biofuels for a Greener Planet

by Daniel O'Donnell
- May 17 2014 - 6 min read
turning_trash_into_fuel_fiberight

One of the most difficult parts of turning a town’s waste into usable energy isn’t the process itself—it’s winning over community members who are most affected by landfills, according to Andy Gotsch, process engineer for Fiberight, a Maryland-based clean-technology startup that transforms waste into renewable biofuels.

You would think the myriad logistical and technical obstacles facing the clean-technology company would be the largest hurdles to the company’s success. But, in large part, the sheer innovation of the processes Fiberight uses has caused some people to become uneasy and mistrustful of the science behind transforming post-recycled municipal solid wastes and other organic feedstock into next-generation renewable biofuels.

“The hardest thing for us to do was to convince the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] that we’re actually recycling because the first thing people think when they hear we’re making trash into energy is incineration,” Gotsch says.

But since Fiberight launched in 2007, it’s made strides in getting buy-in from agencies and the community. Recently, the biofuels company was guaranteed a $25-million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s biorefinery program.

Making Use of an Abundant Resource: Trash

Fiberight produces cellulosic ethanol and biogas through a series of complex processes. These are built on a customized sorting procedure, pulping, enzymatic hydrolysis, and advanced recycling techniques. In other words, the company takes a community’s trash and transforms it into usable biofuel.

The company first established its pilot plant in Lawrenceville, Virginia, seven years ago, after purchasing a facility the previous owner had been using to process fiber to create organic insulation.

biofuels
Courtesy Fiberight

“Fiberight purchased that plant and saw value in what the fiber could do, which in our case is convert it into C5 and C6 sugars [C5 (pentose) and C6 (hexose) act similar to yeast in creating alcohol—or cellulosic ethanol in this case], and then later ferment it into ethanol or butanol, depending on what the market’s striving for,” Gotsch says.

A Need for Manpower

Fiberight’s team of engineers and scientists developed and streamlined procedures to achieve expected results and turn a profit. But finding capable hands to manage engineering operations had been a perennial challenge.

Fiberight CEO Craig Stuart-Paul attempted to supplement a shortage in manpower by hiring an independent professional engineering agency to manage drafting and designing the recycling facilities. Ultimately, the strategy backfired because of cost overruns and less-than-positive results. The cost of a single phone call to the agency outweighed the return on investment.

Fiberight had a firm understanding of its own processes and design, but they needed the right people and tools. At that point, Gotsch and several other in-house engineers were brought on board, two of whom use Autodesk Plant Design Suite 2014—particularly AutoCAD Plant 3D—to save costs and close the gap between Fiberight and larger firms.

Drawing on the Benefits of Building Information Modeling

Fiberight is on a tight deadline to open its first commercial facility in Blairstown, Iowa later in 2014, and—using its BIM capabilities—AutoCAD Plant 3D is making it possible to improve collaboration with vendors and contractors.

Plant 3D has built in ASME and ANSI industry standards for equipment, which makes ordering parts more efficient and accurate. For instance, the Iowa facility will use a lot of stainless-steel piping, and when Gotsch routes pipes, the software knows the exact flange size and bolt-hole locations.

biofuels
Courtesy Fiberight

“It’s not about ballpark quotes,” Gotsch says. “The company gets exact estimates, which helps Fiberight with savings and costs—because with construction, there are always cost overruns.”

After Gotsch sends the components out in a 3D model, the vendor or contractor can import the model, and it gives them accurate take offs—pipe locations, distance lengths, and elbows.

One of the big components to designing a plant like Fiberight’s facility in Iowa is having P&IDs (piping and instrument diagrams), effectively supplied by AutoCAD P&ID. The software demonstrates the benefits of BIM by allowing you to click on and identify specific pieces of equipment labeled in the P&ID and tabulate everything from manufacturer information, flow rates, and design sizing.

“We were actually able to route the pipe on the pipe rack in our 3D model, pull out the pipe rack, send it to our pipe-rack vendor, and they were able to give us a quote within a day based on constructability and installation,” Gotsch says.

Blairstown: A Key Partner

Fiberight chose Eastern Iowa for its facility because legislators there have mandated that local communities and governments bring their trash to a more sustainable outlet such as Fiberight, which can recycle waste in a cleaner and greener format. Of the trash Fiberight takes in, only 15 to 20 percent goes to a landfill—it’s eliminating 80 percent of the waste.

“The biggest thing is educating people,” Gotsch says. “In Iowa, we’re putting together an action group that’s going to go around and educate the community on our process.”

biofuels
Courtesy Fiberight

This strategy has already paid off after CEO Craig Stuart-Paul spoke at the Marion Economic Development Co. annual meeting. The Marion City Council approved tax-increment financing worth $850,000 for a facility measuring 50,000 square feet in the Eastern Iowa town. This second location will play a crucial role in supporting the role of the Blairstown facility when it opens later this year.

Challenging the Status Quo

Not every process is smooth sailing for the clean-tech startup, though. It can be challenging for Gotsch to get his hands on customized equipment from vendors because Fiberight takes an unorthodox approach in integrating components.

“Some of the equipment has long lead, meaning it’s going to take eight months to construct one of these things,” Gotsch says.

For instance, Fiberight uses a specialized washing tunnel for processing municipal solid waste into feedstock for the production of compressed biogas and cellulosic ethanol. The company that supplies the washing tunnel builds them for naval ships, which use them to wash bulk loads of clothing in a centralized unit.

Fiberight, however, had different plans, and approached the company by saying, “We want to use your washer tunnel, but not for clothes—for trash,” Gotsch recalls. Much like the community in Iowa that will eventually benefit from Fiberight’s new facility, many suppliers required some assurance.

According to Gotsch, Fiberight spent a lot of time educating its partners on the company’s process of converting waste into fuel and the need to wash the garbage beforehand. Fiberight also spent time convincing them the washer tunnel supplier’s equipment could be used as Fiberight planned. “They don’t feel comfortable with it because they’ve never done it,” he says.

biofuels
Courtesy Fiberight

With plans in the works for the Blairstown plant, this could be a potentially serious obstacle. “If we’re trying to get this plant up and running before the end of this year, that makes things really tight,” Gotsch says. “One of the biggest challenges is trying to schedule when we’re going to order equipment so that it cascades in the order that we need to receive it.” Fortunately, by developing strong relationships with suppliers, Fiberight is getting a firmer idea of when equipment will be available.

Adapting Practices

Fiberight has seen its processes change over the past seven years because the company is always trying to improve the process, whether at its pilot plant in Virginia or with its forthcoming facility in Iowa. “We’re always trying to consolidate the amount of equipment we need,” Gotsch says. “The bigger the plant is, the more equipment there is, the more expensive it is, the longer it takes to get a return on investment. So, our job is not only to make sure that the plant works, but also to make sure it runs safely and is cost effective.”

In addition to paring down equipment, Gotsch and his team are changing mass and energy parameters in equipment to yield a higher conversion rate and increase profits.

Learn more about eliminating waste and saving money in construction projects by reading about BIM for prefabrication.

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