Modular Plant Solutions: Russell Hillenburg’s Big Idea That Might Change The World
An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
No matter what you’re doing, it takes more money than you think it will. This one coincides with the first one because as they say, time is money, and I’ve found that to be very true.
As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Russell Hillenburg.
Russell Hillenburg is president and co-founder of Modular Plant Solutions (MPS), a global engineering firm specializing in process modularization and project implementation, as well as president of Houston-area fabrication business Woven Metal Products.
In the last two decades, Russell has embodied entrepreneurship, including taking over his family business and launching multiple new companies, all servicing the refining and energy industries. Russell was instrumental in developing MPS’s flagship product, MeOH-To-Go®, which enables users to create AA grade methanol for immediate market utilization from natural gas from a variety of grey sources, including pipeline, stranded and flared, as well as various compositions of syngas derived from newly developed green or blue sources.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you please tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I got started in the energy and petrochemical industry through my family’s business, Woven Metal Products (WMP), a premier fabrication business my grandfather founded over 50 years ago in the Houston area. I grew up in and around the energy industry and have held positions of all levels within that company, giving me valuable experience and insights into what’s next for the industry — and what customers are looking for.
My deep experience with customers in those industries led me to start up Modular Plant Solutions (MPS). In collaboration with my chemical process engineering partner, we developed the design idea for a small-scale, easily transportable, modular plant that saved on upfront capital costs, and we later co-founded MPS in 2016 to bring that design to market.
Can you please share with us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Our Modular Plant Solutions team has traveled the world to source the materials for our products, developing relationships with vendors in multiple countries. We’ve formed some fantastic friendships and relationships over the years, all of which started as business partnerships. It’s been so interesting to experience different cultures around the globe from the lens of not only business, but also good relationships. For example, when we travel to Italy for business, our partners bring us to their homes and give us a local experience. It’s really a great feeling.
Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?
For me, it’s about honesty, integrity and loyalty — in both my life and career. These three things build successful relationships. When you do what you say you’re going to do, people trust you and want to work with you. Also, the golden rule — treat others you want to be treated — is one I live by. You’ll make strong relationships that way, and that’s a large part of what has made Modular Plant Solutions successful.
Ok thank you for that. Let’s now move to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?
At Modular Plant Solutions, we actually like to say that small is big in the world of modularization, and that’s exactly what makes the small-scale methanol plant, Methanol-to-Go®, we developed so appealing. For the last five decades, larger scale plants were more economically feasible, but with Methanol-To-GoⓇ we’ve broken that cycle, making small-scale make sense. Our plant modules are designed with our patent-pending idea that everything can fit in an ISO-1496 container. That way, plant components can be produced in several areas of the world, put in a shipping container, and then easily shipped by truck, ship or rail. It’s akin to building blocks, where you can fabricate parts in different locations and assemble them on-site / snap the pieces together. The combination of shop-fabricated modules, a standardized design, and lower transportation costs make our approach competitive with world-scale plants.
What’s really cool about this idea is that depending on a customer’s resources and needs, we can use different feedstock options and technology processes for Methanol-to-Go®, as well as add on back-end technology processes, to create AA grade methanol, gasoline or other end products.
For example, earlier in April, we made our first sale of a Methanol-To-GoⓇ plant to Arbor Renewable Gas to use in the first-of-its-kind green gasoline plant. Methanol-To-GoⓇ will be a key component in the process chain of green gasoline production at the plant. We were able to set up our small-scale methanol plant to receive syngas produced from woody biomass as feedstock, and the resulting methanol then goes through an add-on process that results in renewable gasoline. The bottom line: customization with a Methanol-To-GoⓇ plant can meet a variety of customer needs and desired outputs.
How do you think this will change the world?
With Modular Plant Solutions’ modularization techniques, we are breaking the curve to make small-scale plants economical. There are so many possibilities, the sky really is the limit. Options for where and what we could modularize to improve a situation somewhere are endless.
By modularizing plant components, most of the work is done in a fabrication facility instead of on-site, which takes away a lot of construction risks and costs, as well as increases the consistency and quality of the final product, not to mention the ability to repair any issues before assembly in the field.
The original design of the Methanol-To-GoⓇ plant takes previously unusable stranded natural gas that could be anywhere — and a potential pollution source if flared — and turns it into something useful and profitable. Our customers are able to get closer to their natural gas feedstock by building plants in more remote locations, from South Dakota to Africa, Texas to Europe.
Looking at our other current plant products, because the inputs and outputs can change, we can use a variety of feedstocks to create a range of outputs that are most needed for any given situation. With our current plant designs, we can use natural gas from a variety of grey sources, including pipeline, stranded and flared, as well as different compositions of syngas derived from newly developed green or blue sources to create AA grade methanol for immediate market utilization. And that methanol can be used to create several different products and chemical building blocks for other applications.
While our goal is to build on a smaller scale, we still have to balance what makes sense economically with the optimal size for our plant design. While a smaller footprint can be advantageous for several reasons (less materials and less assembly at less cost to operate), we have to ensure the economies of scale are still logical for our plant or any client project.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?
Several years ago, an upstream and midstream company brought me in as a plant expert and partner, and I recognized a need to turn unusable stranded natural gas into a profitable commodity.
I started talking about the challenge with my business partner, David Townsend, a newly retired chemical engineer, and that’s when the idea for Methanol-to-Go®, our small-scale methanol plant, was born. We wanted to figure out a way to convert the stranded natural gas into something transportable and profitable, even though the gas was in a remote location, not easily reachable nor near a pipeline.
That’s what led us to co-found Modular Plant Solutions and develop the design for Methanol-To-GoⓇ, a small-scale, easily transportable, modular plant that uses stranded gas to produce market-ready, grade AA methanol.
What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?
There’s a lot of interest in our modularization capabilities, and we have several potential customers who are drawn to the ingenuity and uniqueness of what we’re doing. They are really interested in our techniques and ideas.
But as you can imagine, one of the key aspects to gaining more adoption is getting our first project off the ground. And that’s what we’re doing with the sale of Methanol-To-Go® to Arbor Renewable Gas. We will also be modularizing many plant components for their project, as well as managing the engineering and technology partners for the entire plant. Our team will also advise on procuring the needed equipment, help oversee construction, commissioning and start-up.
All in all, we anticipate that even more customers will want to buy into our small-scale methanol plant concept once they can see it in action.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why.
- No matter what you’re doing, it will always take more time than you think it will. This one probably hits home the most as I’m more of a visionary and don’t always see the implementation details needed. I tend to think we can achieve the results in a fraction of the time. My team continues to advise me and think through the logistics.
- No matter what you’re doing, it takes more money than you think it will. This one coincides with the first one because as they say, time is money, and I’ve found that to be very true.
- Just because you can see the vision doesn’t mean that others can or are willing to accept it easily. I’ve found that often where we end up is beyond what I originally had planned or thought. As we work through details on a plan, there are more customers and a greater market need that drives future products, projects and plans. Because its far-reaching, I do a lot of selling of a vision that isn’t always realized by others.
- It takes more than just hard work to succeed. It takes ambition, diligence and optimism as well.
- The people involved in your business are critical to the long-term success. This couldn’t be truer for me and my experience. The people I have at my helm are some of the brightest in their areas of expertise and because of that, it allows me to not have to focus on those details. I can trust them to do what they know is best for various segments within each company.
Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?
Be open minded. Stay true to who you are. Demonstrate dedication through hard work.
There will always be times when it’s easier not to stay true to those values, but stick to your guiding principles. People appreciate it when you are forthright with them.
Some very well-known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
What we’re doing with Methanol-To-GoⓇ is breaking the world scale idea that you have to go bigger to build a cost competitive chemical plant. We chose to produce methanol because it’s a building block for a significant number of chemicals and other end products. And with Haldor Topsoe’s licensed process technology powering Methanol-To-GoⓇ, we have proven technology that has been in the industry for years backing the process, so it’s not just our word for it. We have developed a small-scale, long-lasting product we are excited to bring to market.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.