MARQUETTE - The former renewaFUEL project at K.I. Sawyer has successfully re-emerged as Michigan Renewable Carbon, an entity turning biomass into high-performance carbon products.
The company recently completed construction of its $30 million plant at Sawyer and has begun commercial production, with the capacity to process 300,000 tons per year of biomass into carbon products.
"We're very pleased with where we are right now," said Jim Mennell, CEO of Biogenic Reagents, a Minneapolis-based company which owns and operates the K.I. Sawyer plant as its production facility.
Biogenic Reagents, a Minneapolis-based company, owns and operates its Michigan Renewable Carbon plant at K.I. Sawyer. The plant was formerly owned by Cliffs Natural Resources and operated as renewaFUEL. (Journal photo by Matt Keiser)
In September 2011, after renewaFUEL's inability to generate products at designed capacity, parent company Cliffs Natural Resources suspended operations and later began looking for potential buyers.
The $19 million facility opened in 2010 and was expected to produce 150,000 tons of biomass cubes per year, using sustainably collected wood and agricultural feedstocks, for Cliffs' Michigan operations and other entities, including the Marquette Board of Light and Power.
In January, Cliffs officials announced that the assets of the operation had been sold to RNFL Acquisition LLC, an investor group that includes renewaFUEL's minority partners. The new owners said the Minnesota-based company hoped to have the plant retooled and up and running within the next four to six months.
In July, county officials said 13 full-time workers had been hired, a leadership team had been put in place and the company was working on the plant, running tests and developing its new product.
Mennell said this week the plant has hired 20 people locally, with that figure expected to double by the middle of next year.
"We have such a great group of people working at this plant," Mennell said.
The business is projected to create and support more than 100 jobs in the local forestry, wood products, transportation and construction industries. An advanced pyrolysis technology is used, which includes heating material in an oxygen-free environment to yield a set of biomass products which the company said are less expensive, higher-performing and cleaner alternatives to traditional coal-based carbon products.
Initial products include activated carbon with applications for air and water purification and control of mercury and other emissions from power plants.
According to multiple studies, including blind side-by-side trials conducted by researchers at Stanford University and a recent full-scale trial at a Michigan utility, the company's mercury control product outperforms coal-based products and has demonstrated the ability to reduce mercury emissions from a coal-fired power plant by more than 90 percent.
Company officials said the achievable levels are three times lower than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's new mercury air toxics standard that will go into effect in early 2015.
Biogenic Reagents is also exploring new carbon products and markets, including high-energy thermal carbon (used to supplement or replace coal and other solid fuels) and metallurgical carbon (for use in purification and production of iron and other metals).
"Our team is looking to replace coal-based carbons in everything from water filtration to building materials because our renewable biobased products cost less and have greater purity, delivering measurable performance and environmental advantages," Mennell said.
The names of the company's customers are withheld under non-disclosure agreements. Mennell said the company currently has no customers in Marquette County and the company is developing at least one client in the Upper Peninsula.
Mennell said the Presque Isle Power Plant, which has been concerned about the new EPA standards, could benefit tremendously from the company's products. Uses would include mercury reduction.
"You could use it as a replacement or partial replacement for coal," Mennell said.
Marquette County officials have been pleased with the redevelopment of the company.
"The Michigan Renewable Carbon project will help improve the economy in Marquette County, create new jobs, and support existing jobs in the local construction and forest products industries," Marquette County Board Chairwoman Deborah Pellow said in a recent letter of support for the company. "We are hopeful that building a leading-edge technology company at the former K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base will attract other investors and companies and advance our efforts to redevelop this site with growing business that can offer new employment opportunities."
Before selecting Sawyer, the company had considered building its production facility in Seattle, but ultimately decided on Marquette County.
"It's been a tremendous place to grow this business," Mennell said.
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206.