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Biorefinery firm eyes plant in new industrial complex at former Old Town mill

Posted May 03, 2017, at 11:45 a.m.
Last modified May 03, 2017, at 10:20 p.m.

A Massachusetts company focused on making liquid fuel, chemicals and other advanced materials from wood intends to build its first major project in a new industrial complex planned for the former Old Town Fuel and Fiber.

The Framingham, Massachusetts-based Biofine Technology has plans for its first large-scale project in Old Town, where on Wednesday it held a public demonstration of its pilot project to break down wood into intermediate chemicals that can be made into other things.

Hemant Pendse, director of the University of Maine’s Forest Bioproducts Research Institute, said the pilot project will give the company information necessary to move ahead with commercializing its operation. Biofine holds multiple related patents.

The company acquired that pilot plant in the wake of the Old Town mill’s bankruptcy and paid $200,000 to move it to the University of Maine’s nearby research facility.

On Wednesday, the university and Biofine showed off that pilot project and announced the company’s plan to locate in a “multi-tenant industrial park” at the former pulp and paper mill, under new owners.

The pilot project on Wednesday was due to complete 100 hours of continuous operation, putting out chemicals that could be further processed into products such as jet or diesel fuel or bioplastics.

UMaine’s research institute has separately studied the fuel-making process and said that the “chemical intermediates” from Biofine’s process “are critical in the university’s patented conversion technology” to make fuel from wood.

Current low oil prices have posed a barrier to getting some of those technologies to market, and first-of-a-kind plants can cost a hefty sum, but many companies have honed their technology at laboratory and pilot-project scales.

[ Could biofuel save Maine’s timber industry?]

The projects share the hope of forest products observers, who have seen steadily declining demand in traditional forest product markets and secondary markets such as wood-to-energy plants.

Charlotte Mace, executive director of the group Biobased Maine, said it’s encouraging to see the idled facility in Old Town get new life.

“To get it going again and make high value bio-based chemicals is excellent and exactly what we need,” Mace said.

After falling into bankruptcy, the mill sold to the Wisconsin-based Expera Specialty Solutions, which closed it again in late 2015. It sold the property to asset liquidators MFGR LLC, apparently affiliated with the Connecticut-based Capital Recovery Group.

The university statement said “the mill is to be rejuvenated as a multi-tenant industrial park by a group of new owners based in Maine,” but did not disclose the identity of the new owners. Expera’s sale is the last recorded in the Penobscot County Registry of Deeds.

Mace said her organization is more focused on manufacturing specialty chemicals from wood, rather than fuels. Biofine has said that its process could be the basis for both.

In a statement, the university said that “chemicals made from biomass could one day be an important revenue source for the forest economy.”

[ As paper mills die, here’s how Maine’s loggers hope to survive]

That’s Mace’s focus, particularly to find companies that could benefit from the reduction of in-state markets for softwood tree species. Mace said she’s heading to Amsterdam later this month for a trade conference with some of the world’s largest manufacturers to market Maine’s forest resources.

That includes new applications like Lego’s consideration of changing up its plastic formula to use bioplastics derived from raw materials like wood or corn.

“Everything in our lives can really be made from the cellulose of wood, and this is really the long-term vision,” Charlotte Mace, Biobased Maine’s executive director, said during a forum in March. “We want to manufacture these high-end products, and we want to manufacture them in Maine.”

 

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