Riding the biofuels wave

Source: Steve Jordon • Omaha World Herald  • Posted: Monday, November 28, 2011

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Fred Reikowsky is general manager of Novozymes’ $200 million enzyme plant in Blair, Neb. The tanks behind him were stranded in St. Louis last summer until the Missouri River floodwaters receded.

Then the Missouri River surged out of its banks, shutting down river shipping.

The Flood of 2011 interrupted plans to float the plant’s huge foreign-made fermentation tanks and other outsized equipment to a dock built by the company on the riverfront near Blair’s ethanol-oriented industrial zone.

Instead, the tanks were stranded in St. Louis until the floodwaters receded and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reopened the river. The barges occasionally scraped along the flood-churned Missouri River bottom, but the equipment eventually made it to the site.

The result by mid-2012 will be an industrial plant producing enzymes that improve the efficiency of making corn-based ethanol. The plant also will be able to make other enzymes, including Novozymes’ Ctec2, which break down second-generation biofuel sources such as cornstalks and switchgrass, projected to be a large and lasting source of fuel.

“This plant is the future for our company in the biofuels industry,” said plant general manager Fred Reikowsky.

The Danish company announced plans in 2008 to build the plant, hosting the crown prince and crown princess of Denmark for a groundbreaking ceremony. But the company delayed construction for a year because of a downturn in the ethanol market, including bankruptcies by some of its ethanol-producing customers.

When the project began moving again, the company doubled its size, and once construction began, the 2012 startup target has remained firm. Full production is due by the end of next year.

Construction workers at the 37-acre project had tackled other tasks while the tanks were delayed by flooding, and now the tanks are in place as the crews close up the last of the buildings so they can complete the final stages during the winter.

Reikowsky, who moved from Novozymes’ U.S. home base near Raleigh, N.C., said the company has a “triple bottom line,” namely a good financial return, environmental conservation and social responsibility. “We make decisions on those three platforms equally.”

Along with profits, the plant’s goals include helping customers cut emissions by 5 percent a year, along with reducing the use of water and other raw materials. In Blair, Novozymes supports youth sports teams and other community activities.

The Blair plant’s first building has been custom-blending enzymes for almost a year, taking freeze-dried enzymes shipped in from foreign countries and mixing them with other enzymes produced by Novozymes in North Carolina. The blended liquid is trucked to ethanol plants around the U.S. and Canada.

Once the Blair plant begins making its own enzymes, the central U.S. location will add more cost advantages, Reikowsky said. The plant is within 500 miles of plants that produce 90 percent of the nation’s ethanol, including a Cargill Inc. ethanol plant just a few hundred yards away. Nearly all of today’s U.S. ethanol is made from converting cornstarch into sugar with the help of enzymes. The sugar is then fermented into fuel ethanol.

The Blair plant has 56 employees now and will hire more in January and February, building to a workforce of about 100.

Reikowsky said he had been concerned that the low unemployment rate in Nebraska — at 4.2 percent it’s less than half the national average — might make hiring difficult, but that hasn’t been a problem. Starting wages of $16 to $20 an hour and good benefits for plant operators have drawn strong interest among workers with a characteristically strong Midwestern work ethic, he said.

Novozymes said the plant’s production capacity is proprietary information, and the enzyme business is competitive. But it’s clearly a high-capacity operation, given the size of the buildings, the number of silver tank trucks that haul away blended enzyme shipments and the large-diameter pipes that connect the plant’s buildings.

The plant also is laid out for expansion. Extra production buildings can fit on its existing property, increasing its capacity by five times, and the company has an option to expand onto 30 acres of adjacent land.

Reikowsky said the company’s goal is to have a leading role in converting a petroleum-based world economy to one based on biofuels, using renewable plant material as its source instead of nonrenewable oil.

Novozymes’ motto: “Together we can change the world, one product at a time.”