The industrial-scale pilot biopolymers plant being built at the BioCentury Research Farm for use in several different industries nears its completion.
The plant, which is a collaboration between the Department of Civil Construction and Environmental Engineering (CCEE), the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering (CBE), and industry partners (most prominently Argo Genesis Chemical, a subsidiary of Seneca Petroleum), houses two main processes.
“One process is to turn soybean oil into a monomer, and then the second part is to turn that monomer into a polymer,” says Eric Cochran, associate professor of chemical and biological engineering and one of the leads on the project.
Cochran and Chris Williams, the Gerald and Audrey Olson Professor in the CCEE department, started planning for the plant with their research team in August 2013, when the team started looking at how the laboratory processes could transfer to an industrial scale. “All sorts of things depend on properties that you don’t typically measure or know in the lab scale,” says Cochran.
After the finalized process flow diagram was completed, they moved on to the computer-aided design, or CAD, mock-up of the whole facility. The 3-D CAD design was approved in September, then its location was prepared for construction and assembly.
The modules that will carry out the chemical processes were constructed by pilot plant specialist EPIC Systems, Inc. in St. Louis and then driven to Boone in April on flatbed trucks almost too large to fit on the highway.
Once all of the parts had been brought up, a crane was on site to lift the modules off of the trucks and place them. “It was really windy that day, so getting everything placed perfectly was impossible,” said Cochran. “There was a couple-week setback because if you have to move something even 6 inches one way and it weighs 80 tons, you can’t just get the crane back out there because of the expenses.”
Everything at the location is now hooked up and being tested with a safe fluid, and the plant is expected to be operational in another 3-5 weeks.