Zero to 10 Million in 5 years

FROM THE JULY ISSUE: Slow to start and with fewer gallons than targeted through the Renewable Fuel Standard, cellulosic ethanol is showing signs of steady growth.
By Susanne Retka Schill | June 26, 2018

Cellulosic ethanol production has been gaining momentum in the past five years, growing from zero to 10 million gallons, and most likely topping 15 million this year. That’s far from the Renewable Fuel Standard’s original target of 7 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuel by 2018 and 16 billion by 2022. Even when cellulosic biofuel from renewable natural gas—primarily landfill gas that is compressed or liquefied for use as transportation fuel—is added, the numbers fall short at 250 million D3 cellulosic renewable identification numbers (RINs) generated for 2017.

A dive into U.S. EPA documents and data sheds light on the players in the cellulosic ethanol industry. As of mid-April, 16 facilities were registered with the EPA to generate D3 RINs in the Part80 Fuels Program list. Only half, though, are producing commercially today. Two are for permanently idled plants—Dupont Nevada and Ineos Indian River—and three are research or demonstration facilities—Poet Research, Zeachem Boardman and American Process Alpena.

Three are outside the U.S. Enerkem registered its plant in Edmonton, Alberta, but is still optimizing its ethanol process and not likely to ship product to the U.S. this year. Enerkem’s thermo catalytic process started up, converting processed, nonrecyclable municipal solid waste into methanol. The methanol-to-ethanol module was completed last fall. Two bagasse-to-ethanol facilities are undergoing optimization in Brazil, one using BetaRenewables Prosea technology and the other Iogen’s. While both are registered, a data check with the most likely U.S. market—California with its Low Carbon Fuel Standard—indicates no biomass-based ethanol has generated carbon credits through the end of 2017.

That leaves eight: Quad County Corn Processors, Poet DSM Project Liberty and six plants using the Edeniq pathway, recently rebranded as Intellulose. EPA includes most of these companies as consistent producers in its projections for cellulosic ethanol for 2018, with the exception of two Edeniq licensees registered after the discussion in the proposed rule setting renewable volume obligations (RVO) was published. Giving a low/high range of 3.9 million to 31 million for the aggregated production—the high being the maximum achievable—EPA projected 16 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol for 2018 from consistent producers, plus a possible 1 million from inconsistent producers, which includes the Brazilian plants and potential new Edeniq producers.

Looking at EPA’s RIN generation data, it appears the nascent cellulosic ethanol industry is on track to meet or exceed EPA’s projections. Each month the agency reports the number of RINs generated, including the running total for the year of cellulosic ethanol. If the 1.2 million-gallon average for the first three months of 2018 keeps up, the total will be pushing 14.5 million. If the production pace recorded in March becomes the norm, the total will approach 25 million gallons.

The Producers
Cellulosic ethanol producers hold their production numbers close to their vests, but considering the EPA’s discussion in the proposed rule, combined with the monthly RIN data and the various companies’ public comments sheds some light on how individual companies are doing.

QCCP was the only consistent cellulosic ethanol producer listed in EPA’s discussion of its cellulosic projections in the 2017 proposed RVO. For 2018, EPA projected a maximum 3 million gallons from the company. In a recent webinar, QCCP announced planned changes that will double production from its whole stillage conversion.

Edeniq’s Intellulose technology helps licensees optimize the addition of cellulose enzymes to starch fermentation and includes a testing protocol accepted by the EPA to determine the cellulosic ethanol lift. CEO Brian Thome says the cellulosic yield varies by plant, with some at 1 percent and the best topping 2.5 percent. Six plants are currently registered and several more are in the process.

With the medium lift from Edeniq’s Intellulose technology of 1.5 percent, multiplied by the total capacity of the six plants registered as of April, the monthly average production would be 550,000 gallons. Add to that QCCP’s monthly average of 250,000 gallons, based on EPA’s maximum production figure, and the estimated total for the corn kernel fiber-to-ethanol producers comes to a monthly average of 800,000 gallons. Subtracting that from the total of any given month gives a rough indication of how Poet DSM’s Project Liberty is progressing.

Poet DSM announced last fall it had overcome the critical pretreatment challenge on its 20 MMgy corn stover-to-ethanol plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa. After more than two years of trying to make the original system work, a new one was developed by Poet engineers. With pretreatment working as it should, optimization of other unit operations could begin. Matt Merritt, director of public relations, reports unit operations are now in sync. “We are bringing all levels up together now.” The plant has hit the targeted 70 gallons per ton.

Tracking the cellulosic ethanol total for each month in the EPA reports confirms that Project Liberty is, indeed, kicking production numbers over the estimated corn fiber total in some months. How soon the remaining optimization work will be complete is impossible to predict. Company officials have said in the past that they won’t declare the plant is fully operational until they are ready to run 24/7. There are two other indicators they are getting close: the contracting for stover harvest has been kicked into high gear and an on-site enzyme production facility is under construction.

Expansion Ahead
Getting pretreatment right is the key step, says Mark Yancey, chief technology officer for D3Max. Plugged pipes and material handling are common issues, but so are the yield-robbing inhibitors produced if the chemical pretreatments are too strong. “If you don’t do pretreatment right, it ends up cascading down the line and impacting your yields,” Yancey says. “If your yields are half of what you want, your process isn’t going to be viable. Even a 25 percent reduction in yield would be the death knell for most projects.” He points to the BetaRenewables/BioChemtex plant in Crescentino, Italy, that went bankrupt this year. “That plant started up with a nameplate of 20 MMgy that was later changed to 12 MMgy. You can’t make a profit if you were planning on 20 and changed it to 12.”

Yancey expects D3Max will join the list of cellulosic ethanol producers next year. The board and members of Ace Ethanol LLC in Stanley, Wisconsin, gave the green light to build a 4 MMgy cellulosic ethanol system using the D3Max technology. Approved in April, Yancey says the final site and remainder of plant engineering is being completed and Fagen Inc. will begin construction this summer with startup expected next year. The demonstration concluded last year at Ace Ethanol established a 7 to 8 percent ethanol yield putting the plant’s wet cake through the D3Max process. The distillers grains left after the fiber is converted to ethanol tests at 50 percent crude protein on a dry weight basis. Feed trials will be conducted this fall to establish its performance in poultry, swine and dairy.

Yancey predicts corn fiber-to-ethanol will be the first cellulosic fuel to top 1 billion gallons, with multiple starch plants adopting one of the new technologies well before there will be multiple standalone, dedicated biomass plants. “It could be adopted as fast as corn oil was, because it is so profitable,” he says. The projected return on investment for D3Max is at one year with a 40 percent equity investment. 

Two other projects on the drawing boards are making progress. ICM Inc.’s Element, being built in partnership with The Andersons Inc., is under construction. The 70 MMgy corn ethanol plant will include starch fermentation and be the first to adopt ICM’s Gen 1.5 technology to produce cellulosic ethanol from corn kernel fiber separated on the front end. The plant is expected to be fully operational by the end of next year.

In California, Aemetis Inc. announced several milestones were met in March on its project development work for a 12 MMgy cellulosic ethanol plant in Riverside, California. Its engineering firm, ATSI, completed front end loading (FEL) engineering at the same time third-party engineers validated an ethanol yield of 77 gallons per ton. The Aemetis facility will convert agricultural waste biomass in an integrated gas fermentation facility combining InEnTec arc furnace gasification technology with LanzaTech gas fermentation. The third-party validation plus the completion of federal and state permitting, also in March, are key milestones for a pending $125 million USDA 9003 loan guarantee.

Author: Susanne Retka Schill
Freelance Journalist