Shuttered Range Fuels plant prepares for new life

hduncan@macon.comFebruary 18, 2012 

SOPERTON -- Wearing green hard hats with the LanzaTech logo pasted over the words “Range Fuels,” officials of the company that now owns a Soperton ethanol plant visited the site this week and met with suppliers and state officials.

The plant, which has employed only a handful of people to keep the machinery in good shape over the last year, remains mostly quiet. You can clearly hear the hawks screeching as they swoop over a maze of pipes and conveyors, located on about 280 acres. But this week, the clanking of workers erecting scaffolding sounded like a harbinger of things to come.

LanzaTech Inc., a company founded in New Zealand and based near Chicago, purchased the biorefinery for $5.1 million about six weeks ago at a foreclosure sale. The previous owner, Colorado-based Range Fuels, reaped about $90 million in federal and state grants and loan guarantees before the plant went into foreclosure last fall without ever having produced ethanol made from wood chips, as promised.

LanzaTech, which has some of the same investors, plans to make ethanol using the same wood chips but with a different process.

Laurel Harmon, LanzaTech vice president for government relations, has said the company also intends to hire back workers laid off a year ago as the plant adds “hundreds” of jobs.

But Harmon said Wednesday that she doesn’t plan to commit to a timeline for those jobs, as state economic development officials are seeking this week.

Last year, LanzaTech tried to take over Range’s $6.25 million One Georgia grant agreement, which included a requirement that 60 jobs be created by 2015. But that deal fell through when the foreclosure occurred and LanzaTech bought the plant on the courthouse steps instead.

“We aren’t a party to the One Georgia grant arrangement,” Harmon said. “Our goals are unchanged, but what’s really difficult for us to commit to is the timing.”

Among the Range employees kept on by LanzaTech are plant manager Bud Klepper and senior maintenance technician Derrick Bates.

Bates said many Range Fuels employees were Treutlen or Laurens County residents who had spent years in the pulp industry. People now approach him regularly to ask when LanzaTech will start hiring.

“I’ve been doing construction for a long time, and been to several industries locally that don’t now exist,” he said. “There are a lot of people out there now needing a job.”

Of the Range Fuels venture, Bates said, “I believe it would have been achieved, but we just didn’t have enough time. I hated to see it go because we were a tight team. We had quality people and I hope they can get some of those back.”

Harmon said she expects to be able to make better employment predictions in six months when LanzaTech engineers have completed their evaluation of the existing plant equipment.

The Georgia grant paid for that equipment. When LanzaTech provided a tour to The Telegraph on Wednesday, it marked the first time that media representatives were able to see what taxpayer dollars had bought.

A tour of the plant

It’s not small. The plant was designed to process 125 tons of wood chips a day, although at its height Range Fuels only refined about half that a day, Klepper said.

Under Range Fuels, the wood chips came mostly from loggers who chipped treetops -- the parts of the tree that couldn’t be used in pulp mills anyway -- within 10 to 15 miles of Soperton, Klepper said.

Harmon said LanzaTech hasn’t arranged contracts for the wood chip supply, but it has communicated enough with former suppliers to believe there will still be plenty available.

The refining process began when trucks full of wood chips pulled up to a bridge-like structure that lifted the entire truck and dumped out its contents. A series of conveyor belts moved and sorted the chips, stopping at a drier that resembles a huge railroad tank car, Klepper explained.

An angled conveyor the length of a football field carried the sorted chips to a storage silo, and another even longer conveyor took them on to a gasifier.

The multistory gasifier was the most expensive element of the Range Fuels equipment the state grant helped buy. The gasifier basically superheated the wood chips with little oxygen, causing them to break down into their component elements and compounds, such as hydrogen, carbon monoxide and methane, Klepper said.

After that point, the plant consists of many large, twisting silver tubes that were used in Range’s method of converting the gas back to alcohols. Instead of this method, LanzaTech will build a bioreactor that will use microbes in a liquid to digest the gases, producing ethanol or other chemicals that can be used in making products such as synthetic rubber and solvents.

LanzaTech engineer Jeremy Owen said a team is still evaluating how well the existing equipment works and how it will combine with the LanzaTech technology.

The process doesn’t release significant air pollution, Klepper said, and its solid wastes are high enough quality to be used to improve soil on farms. Its wastewater will be pretreated at the plant and then treated again at the Soperton sewage treatment plant, he said. Although the plant has a permit to release treated wastewater into Rocky Creek, it has never built an outfall there and doesn’t plan to, he said.

No public funding for now

Unlike Range Fuels, LanzaTech has not turned to public funding for its Georgia venture, nor does its business strategy rely on incentives or mandates for “green” fuel.

Harmon noted that these incentives vary so widely and change so frequently in the different countries where LanzaTech operates -- including New Zealand, China and India -- that the company doesn’t bank on them.

Harmon said LanzaTech has not sought government financial support for the Georgia plant and has no immediate plans to do so.

“But we are a manufacturer, and if there are opportunities to accelerate our development, we wouldn’t turn our backs on that,” she said.

Range Fuels basically avoided having to pay property taxes by leasing the property where the plant is located from the Treutlen County Development Authority for a dollar a year. The property was nevertheless part of the collateral for the federal loan, so it was purchased outright by LanzaTech at the foreclosure sale.

However, the authority has said it would offer LanzaTech the same lease deal if the company wants to deed the land back to the authority. Harmon said the company will probably pursue that option when she meets with authority officials next month.

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.

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