Algae AquaCulture Technologies rebuilds after fire

[USA] Nine months after a fire burned down the main powerhouse structure at Algae AquaCulture Technologies, reconstruction has begun at the site on F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Co. property west of Columbia Falls.

The new facility repeats the octagonal, space station-like design of the previous structure.

So far a steel center column and the wood beam frame have been assembled, a third of way to completion, according to Michael Smith, president of Algae AquaCulture Technologies.

“The fire put us a year behind schedule,” Smith said. “But it let us go back and re-evaluate and redesign the system to be better.”

Right after the initial structure burned, Smith went back to the drawing board with Acutech Works in Columbia Falls to redesign the facility and system.

“We’ve added more monitors and updated the fire suppression system, but the new facility will feature firewalls in the paneling that can withstand up to 2,000 degrees for half an hour,” Smith said.

The January fire report said that a hot piece of biochar, a byproduct of the Algae AquaCulture process, had been left on the ground, somehow conducting heat through the structure to cause a fire.

The damage totaled around $1 million. The new structure is expected to cost $1.2 million.

Smith, whose background is in artificial intelligence technology, made sure the security systems are as up to date as possible, soon being able to monitor exactly who goes in and out of the facility.

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The green powerhouse

The building had been up for about three years and was in operation for two years. Algae Aqua-Culture Technologies was already shipping its products out to companies nationwide.

The biggest changes in the design, Smith said, is a lower, simpler cost, a quicker assembly method, safety improvements and a slightly bigger structure with a 25 percent increase in capacity.

“We were sort of bumping elbows in the original facility,” Smith said.

It took two days to put the majority of the wood frame up. Once all the pieces have been built, it will take a month to construct the rest and Smith believes it should take about three months to become operational again.

The steel column in the center of the facility went up Sept. 4. The wooden beams went up on Monday. Virgil Weitzel Builders, a Whitefish construction company, cut and coated the beams for the project. While a crane operator from Acutech has done most of the work, the project has brought about eight workers, including laborers and welders, to the site for construction.

The building’s concrete foundation was still intact after the fire and is being used as the base for the new structure. A new foundation has been placed for the anaerobic bioreactor room where the processed fuel is brought after the extraction process.

The next step in the project will be putting beams up for the rooms connected to the north side of the structure, then adding the polystyrene fireproofed panel siding.

Acutech is the main contractor, providing most of the steel work. The Columbia Falls-based welding shop is also helping in some of the design of the algae system.

Most of the structural pieces have been built at Acutech and brought to the site. The new structure is meant to be as modular as possible.

Big Sky Insulation in Belgrade has been working with Smith and Algae AquaCulture Technology on the structural insulated panels to develop a heat-resistant panel in attempt to prevent future fires from the damaging the interior of the structure.

The panels are part of the modular design.

“We wanted to fabricate as much as possible in house and be able to ship it out. Trying to make the project more modular has slowed the rebuild down but it’s worth it because we’re trying to build a lot more of these in the future,” said Brad Oen, site coordinator at the Algae AquaCulture facility.

Smith and Oen hope to be able to build three more facilities on the six acres of Stoltze land. Stoltze has a 10 percent ownership in the project. Oen was able to recycle a lot of the metal left after the fire to Pacific Steel and Recycling in Kalispell.

Smith said he hopes to be back in operation by mid-November.

Acutech’s subcontractor list includes Tom Simensen on the plumbing work, Weitzel Builders for the framing, Mark Lauzon for concrete and TM Contracting for the earth tubes. Algae Aqua has subcontracted Jeffrey Doe to do electrical work.

“We’re looking at the construction site all summer and they came in on Monday and put the frame up,” Smith said. “It’s really incredible.”

Oen said the design, which looks like something from a moon station, serves several functions and is continuously changing as construction proceeds.

“Winds here are very dramatic, the design sheds wind beautifully,” he said. “What we’re trying to design is an intelligent building that’s also aesthetic, that way it’s a win for everyone. It makes fuel but it also makes community, and that’s why we’re constantly working on the aesthetic.”

The main powerhouse uses industrial waste such as wood chips from Stoltze to cultivate algae. The algae produces methane gas that can be used for energy. Other byproducts include hydrogen and a valuable organic fertilizer.

The process at Algae Aqua is similar to distilling: Using extracted pure carbon from the wood byproducts to enhance soil is like jet fuel for plant growth.

Taking waste material and making fertile soil is a process that takes 400 days to occur naturally but can be done in 40 days at the facility, Smith said.

 

Photo: Michael Smith stands in front of the new Algae AquaCulture building being constructed to replace a structure that burned in January. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)

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