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From farm to fingernails: GreenBiologics remakes Little Falls ethanol plant

A multi-million dollar conversion project in Little Falls aims to bear uncommon, environmentally sustainable fruit when it's completed later this year.

Central MN Renewables GreenBiologics was originally built as an ethanol plant and is now being converted to produce a wide array of products from renewable resources at the Little Falls plant. (Brainerd Dispatch/ Steve Kohls)
Central MN Renewables GreenBiologics was originally built as an ethanol plant and is now being converted to produce a wide array of products from renewable resources at the Little Falls plant. (Brainerd Dispatch/ Steve Kohls)

A multi-million dollar conversion project in Little Falls aims to bear uncommon, environmentally sustainable fruit when it's completed later this year.

Green Biologics, which is based in the city of Abingdon in Oxfordshire, United Kingdom, bought the Central MN Ethanol Co-op, originally built in 1999. The co-op was renamed Central MN Renewables. GreenBiologics has about 100 employees, counting the 35 in the Little Falls plant. In addition to the plant, the 13-year-old company's facilities in America are located in Ohio, Virginia, and Iowa.

Whereas ethanol is typically used as a component of biofuel gasoline, the solvents that the new plant will produce sell for much higher because they can be used for a wider array of products, GreenBiologics Global Vice President of Marketing David Anderson said in an email.

The solvents, n-Butanol and acetone can be used directly as components in paint, coatings, inks and adhesives, Anderson said, or they can be combined with other things.

"Butanol can also be used as co-monomer to produce downstream derivatives such butyl acrylate, butyl acetate, and butyl glycol ethers to name a few," Anderson said. "These monomers are used to produce products as diverse as cosmetics and plastics, to household and industrial cleaners, high performance coatings, lubricants and pharmaceuticals."

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The green chemical-making process works by fermenting the Clostridium bacteria, the catalyst that spurs the chemical reaction by which renewable biomass materials like corn are converted into the chemicals.

The resulting products will be shipped across the U.S, as well as to buyers in Europe and Asia.

While Anderson said the company does not "disclose specific headcount details," the company kept on the old workers and added a "significant" number of new employees because of the expansion.

At the time the deal was announced in December of 2014, GreenBiologics planned to spend $60 million to $70 million to buy and renovate "one of the more successful ethanol operations in the state" the Star Tribune reported. Earlier in 2014, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture awarded the company half a million dollars in grant money to find new uses for corn.

The St. Cloud Times reported that by the end of last year, the company had raised more than $76 million from global investors for the changeover.

The project was profiled by a Forbes Magazine contributor in May, who compared it to a critical scientific effort during World War I to turn acetone into smokeless gunpowder.

"The products in question here have the very chemical-sounding names of n-butanol and acetone, but these are compounds that occur widely in nature," contributor Steven Savage said.

Savage also noted that about 35 percent of the farmers in the old co-op rolled their investment into the new company.

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FACTBOX-

Business: GreenBiologics

Number of Clostridia bacteria strains in the company's library: 320

Number of employees: 100
Chemical products: n-Butanol and acetone

Company's base city: Abingdon, Oxfordshire, United Kingdom

Related Topics: LITTLE FALLS
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