Cellufuel has stopped operating its Brooklyn biofuel plant, confirms company president Chris Hooper.
“We’re pausing our operations,” Hooper said in a phone interview this morning. The plant will not operate “for the rest of the year,” he said.
In 2012, when the Dexter government announced the defunct [Bowater Mill site] would become a business hub and research centre, it also announced it would match the $500,000 private sector investment in CelluFuel, a company that claims it’s the first in the world to be able to turn forest biomass into diesel. CelluFuel’s president, Chris Hooper, formerly held senior roles with forest industry giants JD Irving, NewPage Corp., and Stora Enso.
In 2013, the Dexter government doled out an additional $1.5 million loan through Innovacorp — a provincial agency that provides early stage venture capital — to help fund the demonstration-scale project. In 2014 CelluFuel received another $500,000 from ACOA’s “business development program,” and in 2016 another $2 million from the federal Sustainable Development Technology Canada fund.
In 2016, Cellufuel also benefitted from a $1.7 million viability study, of which $667,000 was funded with public money.
The plant is shut down so the company can address problems related to solids in the fuel. Up to 10 per cent of the “input mass” — the trees and other material fed into the plant — are inorganic, said Hooper, and up to five per cent of the resulting biofuel has suspended solids in it. As Hooper explained it, two of the plant subsystems “have proved problematic.”
“We’re looking at three possible solutions,” he said. One is German-produced, another is American. The third possibility is an in-house custom solution.”
The plant shut-down means that eight contracted plant operators are out of work. But Hooper insists Cellufuel will work out the problems and get the plant up and running again.
“This is a demonstration plant,” he said. “It was never intended to be a commercial plant. It’s a proof of concept.”
“People want to hit the panic button, but this is how innovation works,” he continued.
As Hooper explains it, the point of the demonstration plant is to work out the kinks, see what goes wrong, and build better equipment and processes. Then, the company can move to commercialization. He said the biofuel plant is analogous to the Minas Basin tidal energy efforts — the first turbine placed in the basin was torn to shreds, but engineers can learn from that failure and try again.
Hooper said he is not anticipating asking for any public money to help the company through the year he anticipates the plant will be inoperative.
“I shouldn’t say no definitely, but I don’t think so,” he said.
Innovacorp, the venture capital agency that oversees the province’s investment in Cellufuel, did not return a call for comment.
If Cellufuel can work through the demonstration plant’s problems, and if the biofuel diesel production process become commercially viable, it will cost up to $40 to $50 million to build a new plant, said Hooper.
How long would that take?
“Two years,” he responded. “But it may never happen.”
“Who knows what the future holds?”