Gainsville, Fla. - Whenever people talk about America's energy future (and a lot of people do these days) biofuels are always mentioned as an important part of the overall picture. And while it's no great feat to convert nearly any plant material to ethanol - corn is the most common source at the moment, but switchgrass, sugarcane and wood chips all show promise - finding the industrial processes with the energy and financial efficiencies to make the whole operation viable has been a great deal trickier.
Research into those processes is the entire reason behind the new Cellulosic Ethanol Pilot Plant on the University of Florida campus in Gainsville. And it makes sense that UF would make the investment; the state's year-round growing season makes it the country's number one biomass producer, with more than 124 million tons generated each year.
Such a facility naturally demands very high-tolerance water and steam handling, as well as the installation of specialty equipment. To do the job, the engineer of record, Moses and Associates, recommended S.I. Goldman, a mechanical contracting firm that's been serving central Florida since 1959.
“We were one of two invited bidders,” says Brian King, special projects division manager for S.I. Goldman. Past work with the engineer, a rock-solid reputation and a good price point all combined to get S.I. Goldman the job. The scope of the work, says King, “was relatively small, because the owner [the University] provided all the equipment.” Their end of the job was bid out at just under $100,000.
King, working with a small crew — never more than four — installed systems for high-pressure (600 lb.) steam, low-pressure steam, de-ionized water, domestic cold water, low-pressure and high-pressure condensate and pump condensate. S.I. Goldman also installed two boilers, a Rheem for low-pressure and a Fulton for high-pressure.
“Both boilers were on skids,” explains King, “self-contained and self-controlled. That included an angle pump, an air separator, the expansion tank and the boiler all on one skid. It was a nice piece of machinery.”
Most of the steam controls were Spirax Sarco, with the expansion tanks coming from Armstrong. In addition, S.I. Goldman technicians had to install some specialty equipment for handling enzyme-based reactions, including Belgian-manufactured fermenters and a hydrolizer.
The work itself went smoothly. “We get asked by the university quite a bit to price out this kind of work,” says King, “so that they're sure they have a qualified contractor to do the work. They're usually very accommodating, knowing they're going to get a good finished product.”
S.I. Goldman's part of the work started in early July and was finished by mid-August. In October, a ribbon-cutting ceremony was held that included representatives from Florida Governor Charlie Crist's office. The facility has been up and running ever since, with no callbacks.
Brian King is proud of the work he did on the job and happy to talk about it. The University of Florida, however, was extremely tight-lipped about what they will do with the facility he helped complete. “The actual process we were working on, they were kind of mum on,” King says.
And no wonder. Whoever is able to take the extraction of ethanol from biomass past a certain efficiency threshold could be holding the keys to America's energy future.