Many team members at POET have spent countless hours researching, developing and constructing Project LIBERTY and are becoming the first cellulosic experts in their fields.
In the last three issues, Vital has started introducing the people who are the heroes of their local communities and of POET’s 27 Biorefineries. This issue will be a little different with an ethanol plant that is a little different. Working in a first-of-its kind facility, the teams behind the research, development and operations of Project LIBERTY are also the first of their kind and they’re paving the way for cellulosic ethanol.
These teams have been essential from the beginning – from the very idea of Project LIBERTY. They have done everything from writing grants, patenting chemical processes and creating new baling processes. They’ve been responsible for the design and construction of first-of-its-kind equipment, forming international partnerships and collecting biomass at an unprecedented scale.
These accomplishments come at a cost including working double shifts and weekends, shoveling spilled material, unclogging heat exchangers, and replacing valves. Some have spent months completing processes to realize a better way only to scrap the original process and design a better one.
Today, as Project LIBERTY is starting production, the team is putting in long hours and taking on tasks above and beyond their typical positions. And this isn’t the first time team members at POET have stepped up to make cellulosic ethanol a reality. In 2008, many team members (some of the same team members working on LIBERTY today) put in the hours to see the success of the pilot scale facility at POET Research Center in Scotland, SD.
Engineering Research Director Dave Carlson was involved with the pilot plant’s planning stages. In those early years, he sometimes wondered if Project LIBERTY would ever get built. But he’s seen firsthand how this team has made sure the world’s first commercial-scale cellulosic plant would become reality.
“There were lots of challenges getting the pilot plant to duplicate results we’d gotten at lab scale,” he says. “I spent most days in the plant, wearing a hard hat, carrying a wrench.”
Today, the Scotland facility has grown to 70 employees, many of whom work directly on the pilot plant.
Carlson has recently been in Emmetsburg, Iowa working on LIBERTY’s start-up, and his typical day feels a lot like Scotland in 2008.
“The LIBERTY opening is reminiscent of the pilot plant’s early days,” he says. “Just on a humongous scale.”
And that humongous scale requires many man hours.
PUTTING IN THE TIME
POET Process Engineer Blake Gomer’s days, like many others at LIBERTY, begins and ends with the plant’s 7:15 a.m. and 7:15 p.m. shift meetings, where he receives his action item list, everything
from troubleshooting a vibration in a motor to analyzing data to improving the biomass pre-treatment process.
“Every day, something different is waiting for me,” Gomer says. “There’s never monotony. We’re always troubleshooting or improving some area of the plant.”
After that 7:15 p.m. meeting, Gomer heads back to his hotel room or, maybe, makes the two-hour drive home to Sioux Falls.
The team is coming from Sioux Falls and Scotland, SD, but it’s also Emmetsburg’s very own who have stepped up to get this plant up and running. Everyone from lab staff to engineers to
maintenance has been uniquely involved in the opening of Project LIBERTY.
COMPLETE AND PRECISE
With a long-term interest in the development of cellulosic ethanol, the position as Lab Technician at Project LIBERTY seemed like a natural fit for Nick Pokorzynski. He’s been thrown right into the mix, which, for him, focuses on making sure the plant’s instruments are designed properly and working like they should.
“Currently, with the start-up of LIBERTY, the biggest challenges we face are making sure that all of our instruments are performing adequately, all of our procedures are complete, precise and thoroughly vetted for errors,” Pokorzynski says. “We need to be prepared for future developments concerning the start-up and the future of LIBERTY as a whole.”
While Pokorzynski’s hands-on experience with the instrumentation has been his top priority, he says the real satisfaction has come from the team effort.
“For me personally, the most interesting part of my job thus far has been the opportunity to work closely alongside the POET research team in the development and implementation of these new procedures,” he says. “I think that this really speaks volumes to just how cutting edge this process and facility really is. We are undertaking a very unique endeavor and have a very uniquely prepared team to handle the task.”
Since starting as a Plant Engineer for Project LIBERTY in January, Ted Elverson has been through everything from trainings to plant shutdowns to jumping into LIBERTY’s start-up.
Having grown up on a farm, Elverson knew he wanted a job that would keep him connected to agriculture. He even chose his degree, Ag and Biosystems Engineering degree from South Dakota State, knowing it would prepare him for a career in the ethanol industry.
“There is always a long list of tasks to be completed at each shift exchange,” Elverson says about the start-up. “Experienced leadership and eager staff are able to complete the list and provide another list of things for the next shift. There are set-backs, but maintaining focus on the steps forward has been the emphasis.”
Those steps forward have been essential. Before start-up, trainings were held, but Elverson mentions that nothing can really prepare you for the real-thing.
“It has been a stressful, tiring few weeks, but everyone is maintaining a positive attitude and that goes a long way,” Elverson says. “Pressure is needed to create diamonds and I think our team will be sparkling after this.”
In her nine months working as a LIBERTY Plant Engineer, Anna Cline’s team approaches the process by setting goals to accomplish the challenges that arise daily.
“We always tackle the challenges as best as we can. It can make it hard to plan or predict how close to the goal we’ll get that day – but we’re always bettering the plant as we go,” Cline says.
The team doesn’t have experts to turn to. As they start-up LIBERTY, they troubleshoot issues never seen before and improve processes originally thought to be ideal.
“The first time starting up new equipment and the first time running a new process – Murphy’s law can come into effect quickly, but the team is great at staying positive and committed to doing their best to accomplish a great shift,” Cline says. “We all get taxed from time to time from the extended hours and multiple days, but when there’s a challenge to tackle or help needed, everyone, even those not involved or already working in other areas are stepping up as needed.”
And while start-up is taxing on the entire team, it’s the big picture that keeps them going. Eventually the kinks will be worked through, the processes flushed and the start-up complete. And when the dust settles, a first-in-the world process will be complete and a new set of experts born because of it.
“Sure, there’s a lot of time away from home,” Gomer says. “But everyone here makes sacrifices. Everyone here knows we’re doing something revolutionary. I can’t wait for the dust to settle so we can let everything we’ve done sink in.”