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Rentech looking to build CTL plant in Mississippi

Adams County — It’s economic development in its purest form. A former golf course located just south of Natchez is being targeted for a new manufacturing plant that could have a price tag as high as $1 billion and employ hundreds of local workers.

If the project comes to fruition, there should be excitement not just in Adams County but all over Mississippi and the nation, as well. The company is Denver-based Rentech Inc., and it is proposing to build a plant to manufacture diesel fuel made from coal or petroleum coke, both available domestically, thus reducing dependence on foreign sources.

The diesel also creates less harmful emissions, is biodegradable and has a longer storage life than standard diesel. And if all that wasn’t enough, Rentech’s patented process creates useful byproducts that can be bought and used by other industries.

Rentech president and CEO Hunt Ramsbottom said, “It’s a wonderful community, and officials there have treated us well. We couldn’t have found a better site.”

New day for established technology

In the early 1920s, two German chemists, Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch, invented a process by which fuels could be manufactured from such feedstocks as coal or coke. During World War II, when Germany was cut off from petroleum supplies, it used fuels produced using the Fischer-Tropsch (FT) process to fill the tanks of its war machine. And the technology is still prevalent today, with proven current production of 197,000 barrels per day worldwide.

The coal-to-liquid (CTL) process converts synthesis gas — a combination of hydrogen and carbon monoxide made from coal — into ultra-clean fuels. The “syngas” is fed into a slurry reactor that contains Rentech’s patented and proprietary iron catalyst, where the syngas in converted into an ultra-low sulfur, ultra-low aromatic liquid that is then processed into various high-grade products such as fuels, solvents, waxes or lube oil stock.

Studies have found FT fuels dramatically reduce emissions, led by hydrocarbons, which are reduced more than 50% over standard diesel. FT fuels are biodegradable — a spill in the Mississippi River would not affect people or wildlife.

It also has a longer shelf life, allowing for long-term storage. This advantage is particularly attractive in the wake of Hurricane Katrina that left first responders scrambling for fuel as they worked to save lives.

In addition to fuels, the coal gasification product can be used in ammonia fertilizers, syngas, methanol/DME/ propylene and electricity generation. In fact, the proposed Adams County plant will produce enough electricity to power itself with surplus available for sale.

Site teed up

On December 21, 2005, it was announced that Rentech had struck an agreement with Adams County Board of Supervisors, providing six-month exclusivity to negotiate a contract under which Rentech would purchase or lease the Bellwood industrial site for a CTL fuel plant. (The plant can utilize coal or coke without having to convert equipment or change the process.) Bellwood, located just south of Natchez, is a former golf course once owned by Bellwood Country Club, which was taken over by Adams County after its closure, and is now part of the Natchez Adams County Industrial Park and Port. It encompasses in excess of 100 acres along the Mississippi River, a key asset to Rentech, which is projecting to produce and ship 7,500 barrels of fuel per day as well as other products, including 500 tons of ammonia fertilizer daily.

Eighty percent of the plant’s production would be in diesel fuel production, manufacturing a “marine grade” that would go in the tanks of vehicles, and an “aviation grade,” which is of a higher grade. The remaining 20% of production would be in naphtha, which is used in the power generation industry overseas.

Potential customers are as varied as the products. The U.S. Department of Defense is highly interested in alternative fuels, particularly high-grade fuel, and Rentech representatives were preparing for another trip to Washington, D.C., for negotiations at interview time. Other prospective customers include the State of Mississippi (diesel reserves for the state’s first responders), power plants, retail fuel distributors and others.

Anticipating a groundbreaking

Dimensions of the plant have not been determined. However, Rentech is projecting a ground breaking in mid- to late-2007, and be in commercial operation in 2010 or 2011. The company is currently in negotiations with a nitrogen fertilizer plant in East Dubuque, Ill., with the aim of converting the plant to a FT manufacturing facility. Obviously, the Illinois project is different in that it would convert a preexisting facility into a Rentech operation, whereas the Adams County plant would be built from the ground up. Still, the company is anticipating lessons learned there will be an advantage when design and construction of the Mississippi plant gets underway.

Rentech is projecting that construction will employ some 1,500 workers. Once completed, the plant will employ approximately 200 workers, and Rentech is committing to hiring local, including upper management.

While the Illinois project is ahead of the Mississippi project and almost certainly will be completed before the facility in Adams County, Rentech said the Mississippi plant would serve as a model or showcase used in future negotiations and design and construction.

The final hurdle is funding. Rentech is projecting the cost of the Adams County plant to run from $800 million to $1 billion. However, Rentech feels confident that the funding will come through, especially after hiring Credit Suisse First Boston, LLC, as its exclusive financial advisor late in 2005. Credit Suisse is working with Rentech on both the East Dubuque and Adams County projects.

In operation since 1981, Rentech has built and operated five pilot plants and received 19 American and two Australian patents while successfully operating a 250 barrel-per-day gas-to-liquid facility that proved the company’s commercial slurry reactor design and iron-based catalyst life. Still, these are perhaps Rentech’s most exciting times.

“My expectations have been met, and I am pleased with the track we are on,” Ramsbottom said. “It’s hard to say what the future will look like for Rentech, but I hope, and plan, to be the alternative fuel leader in the U.S.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

About Wally Northway

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