The company that purchased a defunct Soperton biorefinery almost a year ago still has not decided whether the equipment there will work with its technology, officials say, but they still expect to begin new construction at the plant next year and begin production there in 2014.
John Burgess, general manager for the LanzaTech Freedom Pines Biorefinery, said he expects the plant will provide about 75 permanent jobs.
LanzaTech officials had said previously they thought they would hire hundreds of workers, but they have declined to make specific job commitments, and its unclear whether those original broad estimates included temporary construction jobs.
Although the Soperton plant has never been fully operational, it already has a checkered past.
The previous owner, Colorado-based Range Fuels, reaped about $90 million in federal and state grants and loan guarantees before folding without ever producing ethanol made from wood chips, as promised.
The company had been lauded in the industry and by Georgia economic development officials, who provided it with state grants and tax breaks. In return, it was supposed to create 69 full-time jobs. LanzaTech, a current industry darling (chosen as a Technology Pioneer for 2013 by the World Economic Forum), has faced some skepticism about whether it would be any more successful than Range Fuels in Soperton.
LanzaTech Inc., a company founded in New Zealand and based near Chicago, purchased the plant for $5.1 million almost a year ago at a foreclosure sale. LanzaTech and Range Fuels had some of the same financial backers.
Georgia-based subsidiary LanzaTech Freedom Pines plans to make not only ethanol but also other chemicals using wood chips. However, LanzaTech will use a different type of process, so it has been evaluating whether its technology can be used with the existing gasifier. The gasifier was built by Range to superheat wood chips with little oxygen, causing them to break down into their components.
Initially Laurel Harmon, Lanza-Tech vice president for government relations, estimated that when the gasifier evaluation was finished in the summer, the company would probably be better able to predict hiring plans. She said she was wary of overpromising as Range had, and she wanted to have more information first.
However, Burgess said the gasifier assessment didnt really begin until he was hired in June. He said the equipment is in good shape and posed no unpleasant surprises. But the evaluation continues, as the company simultaneously checks out other gasifying technologies that have already been proven commercially.
The company is taking its time, he said, to be sure it chooses the method that will produce the best blend of gases, with the least contaminants, to feed the LanzaTech microbes that make chemicals.
We want to make sure the decisions we make are the right ones, Burgess said. Its the first commercial scale gasifier for this particular technology. Any time youre trying to go from a lab scale facility up to full scale, theres going to be challenges.
Burgess said a test run of the gasifier is scheduled for January. It will probably take until early March to analyze those results.
Then well be able to make an evaluation of what the time, costs and effort will be to invest in this technology, he said.
He said this would trigger an engineering phase that would probably be followed by construction of new bioreactors in the second half of next year.
The company already has several partnerships to make products envisioned for the Soperton refinery, Burgess said. These products include a green jet fuel (teaming with Swedish Biofuels, with commitments from Virgin Atlantic for use of the product) and bio-based butadiene (partnering with chemical producer Invista), which is used in making polymers and plastics.
LanzaTech has raised more than $100 million in capital, mostly in the last year, including $15 million in debt financing announced Oct. 3. That financing comes through a private investment firm, Western Technology Investment, based in Silicon Valley, according to the LanzaTech website.
Burgess said Treutlen County and Georgia economic development officials have been great to work with.
Everybodys been very helpful. Ive worked all over the world, said Burgess, who at his previous job was responsible for planning, building and commissioning one of the largest soybean and canola processing plants in North America.
The people Ive been associated with to date have been as world class as anywhere Ive ever been.