UMaine research to aid in revival of Old Town mill

Old Town Mill
The Old Town Mill, formerly used for paper production, will soon begin a new life as a biorefinery, among other uses.

A revolutionary research project at the University of Maine will help breathe new life into Old Town’s former Georgia-Pacific mill and, according to projections, bring more than 1,000 jobs to the area over the next two years.

A group of investors calling itself Red Shield Environmental plans to use the mill and its biomass boiler to break into the field of biorefining ethanol fuel from wood. The technology, which has been in the works at UMaine since 2004, may answer questions posed by both the world’s dwindling supply of oil and Maine’s struggling forestry industry.

The majority of the new jobs will be provided by Hallowell International, Tamarack Energy and Lamtec Inc., three companies that are leasing space from Red Shield in the former mill.

In March, the National Science Foundation awarded UMaine $6.9 million to fund the biorefinery research under an Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research grant, or EPSCoR. The university tacked on a 50 percent matching fund, bringing the program’s budget to $10.35 million over the next three years with the eventual goal of creating a biorefinery in Maine.

Around this same time, the GP mill closed, leaving about 500 workers without jobs. Since then, GP and the state have been working to find a buyer for the site. According to Bill Osborne, a business development specialist for Maine’s Dept. of Economic and Community Development, it became clear that GP didn’t like the idea of selling the mill to a competing pulp and paper company.

Red Shield, with major Maine entrepreneur Edward Paslawski at the helm, arrived with an alternate plan. UMaine, only a couple miles from the mill, had just received major funding for a technology which the former GP mill could utilize.

Hemant Pendse is the chair of UMaine’s chemical and biological engineering department and a UMaine professor. He has led the biorefinery work and is in charge of the NSF grant. “People in Augusta knew about our NSF grant, and these buyers on their own knew about our NSF grant,” said Pendse. He said he only recently met with Red Shield, but that he and the rest of the UMaine scientists and engineers currently working on biorefining will serve as “a technical resource” for the group.

“This is really good timing for some of the work [Pendse’s] been doing to be able to actually have a pulp mill right there in close proximity to the university,” Osborne said.

Red Shield has purchased the mill for $1 from GP, although the price tag comes with some responsibilities. According to Osborne, “Red Shield will be responsible for the environmental cleanup, if any, that’s necessary at the mill,” as well as any other necessary improvements.

At a Monday news conference in Old Town, it was announced that three businesses will lease space in the mill from Red Shield. Tamarack Energy will operate the biomass boiler and Portland-based Lamtec will make adhesive labels at the site.

Hallowell International will expand their heat pump manufacturing business from Bangor, where the company makes residential heat pumps. The Old Town branch will manufacture pumps for residential and commercial use. According to Osborne, Paslawski was also involved in starting up in Hallowell. Paslawski could not be reached for comment as of press time.

Osborne said that in two years, employment created by the redeveloped mill “could be anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 jobs once all of the companies that have indicated an interest are in there.” This is two to three times the number of workers GP employed before the mill closed.

Pendse estimated the amount of lumber used by the biomass refinery will be comparable to GP’s usage. “The kind of wood they get might be different,” Pendse said, but the amount won’t see any great increase.

In addition to the research conducted at UMaine, Pendse said the researchers have given Red Shield their connections to people around the world working on the technology. Still, to have the research and the actual operation only miles apart is a great situation for both parties. “We happen to have gotten this grant and we have assembled the expertise here,” Pendse said. “So this resource being available here is in good timing.”