Danville biofuels plant starting production process today

DANVILLE – After two years of construction, the new biodiesel facility adjacent to Bunge Milling in downtown Danville goes operational today and should start producing the first batch of biodiesel next month.

About 75 people, including local and state officials, facility owners, investors, managers and employees, gathered Wednesday at the new plant at 300 North Anderson St. for a ribbon-cutting ceremony and tours of the facility, which is still partially under construction.

Originally, construction started under an ownership group that included Bunge, but that group sold out in May to Blackhawk Biofuels LLC, a group of more than 500 investors, including farmers, who had originally planned to build a biodiesel facility in Freeport.

When their Freeport plans fell through, the group bought the Danville facility and continued construction of the 45 million-gallon-a-year plant, which will be one of a handful of plants in the nation that can produce biodiesel from animal fats and vegetable oils, including soybean oil. That ability helps ensure the plant's profitability, according to officials with the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, which provided $4.8 million in grants to help with construction. The state also provided $19.8 million in support to leverage the $75 million investment in the facility.

About 25 people from the Vermilion County area have been hired to fill new high-skill, full-time jobs and have been through more than three weeks of safety and biodiesel production training preparing for the plant's startup.

The employees work for Renewable Energy Group, a national biodiesel production and marketing company based in Ames, Iowa, that will manage the facility for Blackhawk.

Daniel Oh, Renewable Energy Group's chief operating officer, said the plant is expected to be offering biodiesel for sale by the end of December and will market the fuel through more than 20 terminal locations across the nation.

"We expect Danville to become a premier facility in the REG network focused on our marketing capabilities in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri and Ohio," Oh said.

Operations Manager Mike Denhart, who guided tours of the facility, said the plant is ready to begin producing biodiesel from soy oil, which is a by-product of the soy crushing process next door at Bunge, which will be one of the plant's suppliers.

Denhart said remaining construction should be done in January on the portion of the plant that will make it possible to produce biodiesel from other products, such as animal fat.

The plant, which is a collection of large holding tanks and a massive intertwining of pipes, towers, centrifuges, reactors and more, will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week with employees working 12-hour shifts. Production is automated, with employees monitoring the process from a state-of-the-art control room. In addition to biodiesel, the process churns out by-products, including glycerin, that can also be sold.

Ron Mapes, chairman of Blackhawk Biofuels, thanked all the agencies and businesses involved in helping Blackhawk purchase the plant and secure the necessary funding.

"We appreciate the level of tremendous partnership to make this facility a reality," he said.

Vicki Haugen, president and CEO of Vermilion Advantage, said probably 1,000 people have had a hand in getting the project complete.

She said it was more than three years ago that discussions began on this project.

"It proves that nothing is easy and nothing happens quickly in economic development," she said.

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