Developers of the first cellulosic plants share updates at FEW

By Susanne Retka Schill | June 11, 2014

Cellulosic ethanol projects around the globe are nearing completion, attendees at the International Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo learned in breakout sessions featuring reports from several companies bringing these technologies to commercialization.

A week before the FEW, Enerkem Inc. celebrated the inauguration of its 10 MMgy facility in Edmonton, Alberta. Commissioning is nearly completed, reported Tim Cesarek, senior vice president of business development. The thermochemical process gasifies heterogeneous streams of municipal solid waste, cleans the biogas to syngas, then uses a catalyst to form methanol and a second catalyst for ethanol. Enerkem's plant will help Edmonton divert about 30 percent of its municipal solid waste stream  to the production of biofuels. Adding that to the 20 percent already recycled and 40 percent composted, it will help the city reduce the amount to be landfilled to just 10 percent. If the 1.3 billion metric tons of MSW produced globally were converted to ethanol, it would meet global ethanol demand, Cesarek added, and exceed global methanol demand.

Also based in Canada, Iogen Corp. has a 10 MMgy plant under construction in Brazil that is on schedule to begin fiber conversion in the fourth quarter. The plant is a partnership with Raizen, the country’s largest sugarcane processor with 24 sugar/ethanol mills. Pat Foody, executive vice president of commercial development, described the development process as circular. “It’s difficult to get this business off the ground," he said. "It’s not any one thing, but everything has to work.” The company’s demonstration plant has gone through eight cycles to come up with a process that has the necessary technical performance aligned with economic performance. One of the latest advancements is the integration of biogas production from process residuals that can be cleaned to pipeline standards and used as renewable hydrogen content (RHC), displacing fossil-based hydrogen in refinery processes. The added RHC coproduct increases the renewable fuel yield for the overall process to closer to 150 gallons per metric ton at a capital expense of less than $5 per gallon, Foody said. Once the first plant is operational, Raizen has plans to build seven more in Brazil. Iogen is also developing a cellulosic ethanol and biogas project in central Kansas, Foody reported.

In Germany, specialty chemical company, Clariant, continues to work on its Sunliquid process. The chemical-free process, uses a mechanical and thermal pretreatment, said Clemens Heikaus, business development manager, and integrates on-site enzyme production that targets flexible feedstocks with process specific enzymes. Sunliquid process includes a proprietary yeast capable of simultaneous, one-pot fermentation of C5 and C6 sugars. A 1,000 ton-per-year demonstration plant began operation in 2012 utilizing wheat straw initially. Last year the process was validated using corn stover and sugarcane bagasse. This year, the process design package is being finalized for commercial-scale facilities, Heikaus reported. The company also gained some attention in Europe for E20 testing done in partnership with Mercedes Benz and Haltermann.

In Denmark, the country’s major power company Dong Energy has a goal of cutting its carbon footprint by 69 percent. Its Inbicon division has focused on cellulosic ethanol production from agricultural residues, with the lignin coproduct being used for power production. “Our process has always focused on the maximum recovery of lignin,” said Henrik Maimann, vice president of Dong Energy and CEO of New Bio Solutions. Inbicon received approval in 2013 for the use of genetically modified (GM) yeast. The addition of C5 sugar conversion with the GM yeast on top of the C6 conversion increased yields by 40 to 45 percent. The company is now partnering with the National Bio Energy Group and looking at two projects in China, and with Odebrecht in Brazil. Dong also has partnerships with Neste Oil to develop a process converting cellulosic sugars to biodiesel or jet fuels and with Maersk to develop a renewable substitute for bunker fuel. In the U.S., Inbicon is now working to integrate its process with existing corn ethanol facilities to help reduce the capital expenditures.

While GranBio Investimentos SA is not developing its own process technology, it is working to become a producer of biofuels and biochemicals, explained Vonnie Estes, managing director USA, in her presentation.  The family-held GranBio is currently commissioning a 22 MMgy plant in Alagoas, Brazil.  Bioflex 1 is co-located with a first generation plant operated by Grupo Carlos Lyra, using process technology from Beta Renewables, enzymes from Novozymes and yeast from DSM. Breaking ground in January 2013, the plant is in final commissioning, she said. “We started the boiler last week and we’re hoping to being producing ethanol next month.”

In other development work, GranBio acquired 25 percent ownership of American Process Inc., and a partnership with Rhodia to develop n-butanol for paints and solvents, Estes reported. The company is also actively working on energy cane development and evaluating other energy crops such as sorghum and elephant grass.

Estes drew a number of comparisons between Brazil and the U.S. “When I started a year ago, we were going to import all the ethanol to the U.S. to meet the California low carbon standard and get D3 RINs,” she said. In a year’s time, the value of D3 RINs is now in question and California carbon trading has dropped to $20 a ton versus $80 a ton. Brazil has no such economic incentives for cellulosic ethanol, so the GranBio production will need to compete with first generation ethanol in Brazil. Right now, ethanol prices are undervalued there due to inflation concerns, she added, although there is no blend wall and ethanol demand continues to expand. The U.S. does carry some advantages, she added. “A lot of the best technology comes from the U.S. and capital and fundraising markets in the U.S. work more smoothly than in Brazil,” she said.