ALPENA - New technology has a way of throwing a monkey-wrench into even the best laid plans. It can present hurdles for proposed projects, or as in the case of the American Process bio-ethanol plant, cause a delay in production of the product the facility is designed to produce.
According to Operations Manager Mark Szczepanik there were several hiccups that slowed a portion of the plant's operations and as a result of the difficulties the plant has yet to produce any market grade ethanol.
"There are two parts in terms of our responsibility as a plant. One is the effluent treatment operations for Decorative Panel International and we took over operations of that on May 1 and that has had been successful this summer," Szczepanik said. "As far as production activities we began those in the middle of May and frankly we have run into some challenges. We have identified some areas we are going to be improving upon and we have not at this point made ethanol or delivered any to the market."
Even though it has been a bumpy ride thus far, Szczepanik believes the bugs have been worked out and it should be in production soon.
"We have produced a couple hundreds thousand gallons of Dilute ethanol, but it is not something that is salable, we're actually still debugging that portion of the process," Szczepanik. "We are hoping during our next run which will begin in the next day or so we're hoping to commission the final product, but we have not done that yet."
According to Szczepanik one of the hurdles involved taking the waste from DPI and turning it into the sugars needed to create ethanol. He said to correct the flaws in the plans, some adjustments needed to be made to the plant itself.
"There are some issues we are having with two pieces of equipment, but we have identified the solution for those and they are long term solutions," Szczepanik. "We're in the design phases for installation of that equipment, but we haven't identified a time frame for that, but right now we're thinking November or December or even January. It will relieve the issues however. It is really a matter of doing something that has never been done before."
When the ethanol production begins Szczepanik said he doubts the plant will run at full capacity at the beginning. He said hindsight is 20-20 and everyone should just move ahead and learn from the mistakes of the past.
"We know what we have done well and we also know there are some things we could have done better as far as the design that we had," Szczepanik said. "We're in the process of rectifying that for the long term. I would think in the first quarter of next year we would get to say 50 percent of design. I don't know if we will make it to our original production target or not, but I would say by the end of the second quarter we should be close to our full production capabilities."
One good thing is the delay has had little impact on the 22 employees hired to operate the plant. Szczepanik said his staff has been very understanding and nobody has experienced a layoff or a reduction of hours.
"The greatest asset I have at the refinery are the people that work for us," Szczepanik said. "They came into this excited and not really knowing what a bio-refinery is about and we have been learning together. We have some very smart people who have a great work ethic and they are willing to chip in and contribute in any way they can to make this a success and I appreciate this very much."
Steve Schulwitz can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 358-5689.