Unique renewable energy project coming to Delta

GREENVILLE — International Silica Technologies, LLC, (IST) produces a silica product that goes into everything from toothpaste to rubber. Producers Rice Mill is a farmer-owned cooperative that is a full-line processor of rice products. Now, these two very different companies are joining forces in a unique renewable energy project in Greenville.

Earlier this month, Jonesboro, Ark.-based IST announced it was planning to site a manufacturing plant adjacent to Producers’ rice-processing mill just south of Greenville. The plant, which is slated to be operational in early 2011, is expected to create 60 direct and 60 indirect jobs when it ramps up to full production.

Rice hulls, a waste product of Producers, is what is bringing IST to Greenville. Based in Stuttgart, Ark., and with many members in the Mississippi Delta, Producers processes rice by parboiling it using natural gas as fuel. The process creates tons of rice hulls annually, which in the past were trucked off site to be used in poultry bedding and as a animal feed filler.

IST is proposing a better — and more valuable use — for the rice hulls. It will use Producers’ rice hulls as fuel to manufacture its StratoSil brand silica. The steam and hot air from IST’s process will then be pumped back into Producers’ Greenville mill, which will use the energy for its parboiling operation.

According to IST, burning rice hulls creates energy roughly equivalent to lignite.

Keith Glover, CEO of Producers, said his company is projecting significant savings from the symbiotic relationship. The company estimates it could save $1 to $1.5 million in natural gas costs, as well as cut its trucking operations by 80 percent. This savings will be returned to Producers’ members, rice growers who are looking for some good news while suffering through one of the worst agriculture years in the history of the state.

IST is also counting the savings. Larry Shipley, IST co-founder and technology developer, said locating the company’s first plant in an existing facility meant his company would not have the expense of building from scratch. That, coupled with the rice hulls that Producers will provide at no cost to IST, gives his company a head start.

IST president and CEO Dr. Randy Powell said, “We are pleased to partner with Producers Rice Mill to bring the initial IST commercial facility to Greenville.”

For Powell, the pleasure is personal. He was formally an independent consultant, and in that role met Ed Johnson, CEO of The Delta Economic Development Center in Greenville. That relationship was key in IST deciding on Greenville to site its inaugural plant.

Johnson said, “International Silica International, LLC, is a region-based company with global technology applications in the agritech vertical market. Since agritech is one of our targeted industries in Washington County, we couldn’t be more thrilled to have a company of this caliber expand upon our region’s history of agriculture and technology.”

Johnson said he sees the potential for more development coming now that the IST-Producers project is a go. He is anxious to go out and promote the project with the hopes of landing similar deals in the Greenville/Washington County area.

“This is validation,” he said, adding that the IST jobs will be higher paying and in the ever-growing green industry. “I can go anywhere now and promote our region. I’m looking to build a cluster here.”

Johnson may have more to market in the future. IST is looking at a possible second phase to its development in Greenville. It is exploring the idea of building a power plant in Greenville that would use rice hulls for fuel. (The co-sited initial plant will only utilize approximately 50 percent of Producers’ rice hulls.)

Rice hulls are not the only potential fuel source IST is exploring, either. Rice straw, another rice waste product, is readily available. IST is still working toward using rice straw as fuel, though Shipley was quick to add that those R&D efforts were still in their infancy.

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