After the lightning strikes: The Bioeconomy’s effort to learn from fire

August 22, 2016 |

BD TS 082316 fire smLightning strikes often in the Advanced Bioeconomy. The Magic catalyst, the miracle microbe, the super strain, the wonder feedstock, the peerless process.

But it’s after the lightning strikes that we begin what former BP Biofuels chief Phil New called “the hard yards of commercialization” and learn not only what is exciting, but what is needed.

For DuPont, the lightning struck quite literally, when early on the morning of Wednesday, August 17, a suspected lightning strike set fire to a stover bale in Story County, Iowa. DuPont has multiple storage sites in Story and surrounding counties for the stover that is used as feedstock for its cellulosic ethanol facility in Nevada.

Lightning Strikes Twice

They say that lightning never strikes twice in the same place, yet was the fifth Stover fire started by lightning, we reported last week, and the second that hit this facility’s biomass reserve in less than a month.

There were no casualties, and DuPont’s said its first priority is the safety and security of local community members and employees. “We are hard at work today in partnership with the Zearing fire department and Story County Emergency Management to contain the fire, monitoring it closely, under the direction of local authorities, and are following strict safety protocol to manage it in a contained and supervised manner<‘ the company said in a prepared statement.

The fire destroyed more than 10,000 bales – roughly 5,000 tons — of  DuPont’s stover repository supporting its Nevada, Iowa cellulosic ethanol operation.

“We’ve had some arcs in the past in small storage locations,” said DuPont’s biofuels business head Jan Koninckx, speaking to The Digest from the fire’s location. “But this is a more severe case of lightning. We have got to find a way to avoid or reduce the scale of these fires. We can’t do a lot about lightning, but we can work to stop it from propagating.”

The ethanol fire back story

We first reported on stover fires associated with the Nevada facility in 2014, when a couple owning 42 acres near the cellulosic ethanol plant under development near the town of Nevada, sued DuPont because of a March 2014 fire that burned thousands of tons of corn stover, and what they claimed was the risk of more damage. The plant has had five fires over the past years, the suit alleged.

The stover was stored 500 feet from the property line but the suit had demanded it be at least 2,500 feet from the property line. Ultimately, the couple settled out of court and dropped the suit.

We also reported on a fire, this one at the Project LIBERTY plant near Emmetsburg, in the short-term biomass stack-yard that could hold up to three weeks of feedstock supply. The fire was quickly contained and there was no damage to the plant itself.

Ethanol plants have been known to have fires, especially in the distillers grains dryer area of operations. We reported on two fires at Valero plants here, and one affecting the Green Plains Otter Tail plant in Minnesota, here.

The response and fire management

“The local fire authority is in charge,” said DuPont’s Wendy Rosen. “We work in partnership with the Zearing fire department and Story County Emergency Management to contain the fire, monitor it closely, and follow strict safety protocol to manage it in a contained and supervised manner.”

But the emergency responders are highly familiar with the facility. “We work with them through our Community Advisory Panel,” Rosen added. “We are sharing information ahead of time with local fire authorities and emergency responders.”

“We want them to come,” said Koninckx, “and help us to understand how we can improve. It’s a very good collaboration because they have experience with small versions of this — whether it is stored hay, or other types of biomass that have caught fire. So, they’re not bewildered by biomass.”

What the fire was, and wasn’t

Despite the large tally in bales, the fire was not as uncontained as the raw total of damage might suggest. Stover is stored in bales, and stacks of bales, and then there are groupings of stacks which are known at the DuPont facility as “pads”. In this case, one pad is in the process of completely burning out. The pads were sufficiently spaced apart to prevent the fire from spreading farther.

Generally, they’re covered with tarps, but the lightning is piercing the limited protection.

Leaving the problem of quenching the fire before it consumes whole stacks, or entire pads. Either through more spacing, or other fire suppression techniques — a question that DuPont has been working for some time with multiple partners, one of whom is known to be Iowa State University. More study is required.

Can bales self-ignite?

Put your hand inside a bale about a month after collection, and it will feel quite warm. But after extensive testing, DuPont has concluded that there is not enough heat to cause self-ignition, and the heat reaches a maximum and dissipates within a few months of collection.

“We sample all the piles [for temperature],” said Koninckx, “but we have never heard any stories of self-ignition, never observed or been able to replicate it.”

It’s not exactly business as usual, right now

The storage system that’s in use right now will not be exactly the same as a licensee would experience in a fully commissioned plant running at capacity.

In that case, there’s will likely be far less long-term storage such as DuPont has established in Story County. In normal operation, stover in many cases would be coming to an on-site storage facility holding only a couple of days worth of stover.

A cellulosic facility capable of producing 30 million gallons of ethanol would require roughly 1,000 tons of stover per day — or 2,000 bales. A short-term holding facility would be holding no more than a week or two of stover — so, think thousands of tons rather than tens of thousands of tons.

Now, harvest season cycles are different from cellulosic cycles. However, in normal operations, stover would likely be held at individual farms — along the side of roads — for periods of up to 2-3 months. Only for storage periods of multiple months would larger, remote storage facilities be operated of the type that caught fire last week. In this case, DuPont has leased a 42-acre farm for long-term storage.

They’re chock-full of energy

Stover bales contain lots of energy. That’s the reason, ultimately, they are so valuable as an energy resource. Ultimately, DuPont and others store them at a rate of around 12 pounds of stover per cubic foot, and each cubic foot contains almost 100,000 BTUs of energy. That’s around 12% of the energy contained in gasoline fuel itself — and we all know how how those fires burn.

Community response

So far, the community around the Story County facility has been supporting, despite the ash that has been flying. The impact on visibility and air quality has, so far, been compared by local residents to the dust created during corn harvest periods.

Other cellulosic operations are wondering, too

Oak Ridge National Laboratory has a biomass and stover collection and storage expert group that has been doing some work related to safe storage — to which producers such as POET as well as DuPont have been contributing data and experience.

“This is an industry challenge,” said DuPont’s Koninckx, “and it’s in everyone’s interest to solve this together. We will collaborate with any parties or groups in the cellulosic field — and also this is a

a challenge for anyone that collects and stores hay, as well — to advance solutions faster.”

What we’ll see in the future

Expect procedural changes, in how DuPont and others store biomass and respond to events. Clearly the industry has learned a lot along the way in what has been an iterative process. But Koninckx bristles at the thought of “more learning episodes”.

“We don’t want to learn a little from a lot of occurrences. We want to learn a lot from what has already occurred. We’re a science company. We’ll bring science to bear.”

Nevada’s progress towards full operations

It’s been an elongated commissioning period at Nevada, and Koninckx confirmed to The Digest that units are still progressively being commissioned.

“We’re continuing to make progress,” Koninckx said. “What has contributed to the long commissioning period is some changes in the approaches to safety that are being made generally throughout DuPont. Implementing those changes has made us go and revisit some things along the way.”

Will the biomass fires slow down the commercialization process?


“Summer storms will not affect the progress of our cellulosic ethanol program,” said DuPont’s statement. “The damage to the stockpile has been relatively minor, and we are still on track to deliver positive economic opportunities to the Story County area and safely cement Nevada as the hub of the global cellulosic ethanol technology revolution.”

The Bottom Line

Time for all parties to come together in a renewed and sustained effort to solve the problem. As DuPont notes, it’s a science problem and the sector is replete with science companies. A DOE-led effort would not at all be a bad idea, with some R&D funding to accelerate the effort and bring in more academics to gather data sets and propose solutions for testing.

Right now, the problems are occurring at first commercials, under the aegis of the technology developers, there have been no injuries reported and the loss of biomass is an economic setback but has not affected any plant’s timeline to steady-state operations.

That’s the good news.

No one wants this to be an ongoing issue for a licensee, 5000 miles away in a remote area where there is less institutional history with preventing, containing and putting out biomass fire. That’s one more risk that licensees will not want to assume — even if every party, everywhere, always has to be diligent about combustion.

The point of biofuels is internal combustion. These episodes of, ahem, external combustion are, in the scale of things, side-shows today. But they could be a roadblock later on. Or there could be a more sever episode later on that is no side-show at all.

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