Failing paper mills could be changed into facilities that extract carbon from trees and convert it into biofuels, other products under patented technology being developed at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, which is taking process in new directions

MILWAUKEE , March 1, 2014 () – The Wisconsin paper industry can look back with pride on a century of innovation, from renewable forestry to Kleenex to coated magazine paper. But the industry's struggles during two decades that have seen the development of e-books and iPads have called that innovation culture into question.

Now, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point are developing patented technology that they hope can transform dead or dying paper mills into an entirely new industry, capable of extracting the carbon that trees absorb naturally and converting it into biofuels and other products.

"I see that these kinds of technologies, which lead us to renewable chemicals and renewable plastics, as the future," said Eric Singsaas, the university's lead scientist on the biorefinery project.

The school is hardly the first to extract cellulosic ethanol from wood. But its scientists are taking the idea in new directions: The university holds two patents on the design of a bioreactor that the school calls a breakthrough in "the cost-effective conversion of wood and biofuel crops into biofuels, chemicals and materials for the 21st-century sustainable economy."

The project won $7 million in research grants from the U.S. Department of Defense and the UW System in Madison. It has three additional patent applications pending for processes that convert the cellulosic hydrocarbons from its reactor into commercially viable fuels, bioplastics, fibers and solvents.

It also lined up several private-sector partners, including Chicago-based American Science and Technology Corp., which opened a subsidiary in nearby Wausau, where AST will build a commercial-scale version of the bioreactor capable of processing up to two tons of trees or other biomass per day.

In addition, Singsaas said, a few venture capitalists already have made inquiries. "We haven't signed anything yet but we've had discussions," he said.

What happens to the state's paper mills is crucial to the state's economy: Paper mills and their sister industry of printing press operators still collectively amount to the single biggest industrial sector in the state, so the plight of the industry has rendered Wisconsin a slow-growth state.

Singsaas, a native of Minnesota, developed his interest in plant-based alternative fuels in the 1990s, when he was earning his PhD in botany at UW-Madison. In 2001, he joined UW-Stevens Point, which boasts the largest undergraduate College of Natural Resources in the U.S. and one of the nation's largest forestry programs.

UW-Stevens Point also has one of the largest paper science and engineering programs, where researchers joined Singsaas in developing the bioreactor. By 2009, the biofuels project compelled Singsaas and his paper school colleagues to co-found the university's economic development arm, the Wisconsin Institute for Sustainable Technology.

Not surprisingly, the university's two issued patents cover a process that in many ways resembles a classic Wisconsin pulp mill, which cooks wood chips under pressure. While most paper mills mainly want to extract the cellulose fiber -- which is only one component of a plant structure -- the university's digester breaks down and separates all the carbon-carrying derivatives of a tree or plant: the cellulose, hemicellulose and the lignin, which is the most carbon-intensive component.

Each of those components, in turn, can be refined under different processes into commercial products like biofuels, ethanol, synthetic fibers, solvents, jet fuel, solvents and possibly even bioplastics that are biodegradable.

The range of byproducts makes the Stevens Point reactor similar to a typical oil refinery, which yields derivatives ranging from plastic feed stocks, petrochemicals, home heating oil and diesel as well as gasoline.

That's where economics comes in, the university hopes. Commercializing the full range of biomaterials helps defray the cost of distilling the biofuels, potentially making the cellulose fuels more price-competitive with fossil fuels, Singsaas said.

"We have a biorefinery that makes multiple, different products," all as part of the same process, Singsaas said.

At least that's the theory. To test the idea, American Science and Technology is drawing up plans to build a large-scale reactor.

"No one will invest in a biorefinery unless they have real data with a much larger capacity than we have now," said Ali Manesh, an engineer and partner at AST, which is privately held. "They want a lot of data."

Formed in 2003, AST is a research and engineering company that specializes in renewable energy. To build its reactor and eventually help commercialize any of its fuels or chemicals, AST licensed the patents from the university.

The university's bioreactors have the capacity to produce fuels, chemicals and materials using many Midwestern agricultural products, including wheat straw, switchgrass and stalks of corn or soy plants. Farmers already have approached AST about providing biomass for the reactor.

The bioreactors can be built anywhere. But putting them on the sites of "repurposed" paper mills makes sense, the university argues. Mills have wood yards, wood chippers, rail lines and boilers to generate power.

"There are reusable assets at a closed paper mill," Singsaas said.

So now, nearly a decade after Wisconsin mills that made publishing-grade paper became victims of technological innovation and began to close, new technology is offering hope.

"We are looking to give them the tools to achieve the next reinvention," Singsaas said.


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