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USDA Officials in the Midwest Look at Novel Ways to Create New Energy from Waste Material

An ethanol plant in Bairstown, Iowa, may soon begin producing fuel from waste materials.

An ethanol plant in Bairstown, Iowa, may soon begin producing fuel from waste materials.

After visiting a cutting-edge biofuels facility in rural Iowa recently, a group of USDA Rural Development state directors are thinking about the tremendous global implications of that plant.

When the ethanol plant in Bairstown, IA, opened in 1999 under the name Sunrise Energy Co-op, it was the first farmer-owned ethanol plant in the state.  It closed three years later and has changed hands several times since.

The current owner, Fiberight LLC, did not buy the facility to use it as a traditional first-generation ethanol plant. With production capacity of five-million-gallons-per year – tiny by current standards – the owners viewed the site as a perfect fit for an emerging technology.

Fiberight is one of a handful of companies in the country using municipal solid waste as its biofuels feedstock.  In fact, earlier this year the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency listed Fiberight as one of a handful of companies expected to start commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol production by the end of 2010.

Fiberight is also doing that on a limited scale, using trash, wood pulp from a near-by paper mill, and waste from a neighboring dairy farm to create ethanol.

USDA Rural Development state directors Patty Clark of Kansas, Janie Dunning from Missouri, Colleen Landkamer of Minnesota and Nebraska’s Maxine Moul joined me recently to see the plant in action.

Fiberight CEO Craig Stuart-Paul told us his company uses a proprietary technology to convert trash that would otherwise go to landfills to ethanol.  The waste is sorted to remove recyclables, hazardous materials and other items that cannot be converted into either biofuels or energy to power the plant.

A Fiberight demonstration plant currently operating in Virginia has validated the technology and Stuart-Paul says the Blairstown facility is the perfect place to commercialize the process.

The idea that trash headed for landfills could be converted instead to ethanol is a revolutionary concept. My colleagues who toured the plant are wondering how they can convince Fiberight to locate its second facility in their state.  The concept – the technology-and the Fiberight business plan all seem to make sense.

Fiberight has already gained financial support from the U.S. Department of Energy and the State of Iowa.  The company is currently looking at USDA Rural Development’s Biorefinery Assistance Program and Business and Industry loan guarantee program for the $12 million expansion that would allow the Blairstown facility to produce up to six million gallons of ethanol annually.

There are a number of exciting technologies emerging in the area of next-generation biofuels. Municipal solid waste is just one – but it’s an industry segment that has tremendous benefits in addition to replacing petroleum.  It’s exciting to see a prototype facility located in rural Iowa!

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