Abengoa Bioenergy opens biomass pilot plant

By Bryan Sims | November 13, 2007
Spain-based Abengoa Bioenergy Corp., one of the world's leading producers of starch-based ethanol, is developing and demonstrating new biomass technologies at its biomass-to-ethanol pilot plant that recently opened in York, Neb., adjacent to its existing 56 MMgy corn-based production plant.

Researchers at the $35 million biomass facility will exclusively research and develop ethanol production processes using lignocellulosic biomass as a feedstock. The company intends to invest more than $500 million in its biomass-to-ethanol development efforts in the next five years. "We see cellulosic [ethanol] as the next big opportunity, and we've been developing technology to take advantage of that," said Gerson Santos-Leon, director of Abengoa Bioenergy New Technologies Inc., a subsidiary of Abengoa Bioenergy that was formed in 2003. "This has been in our plans for the past 10 years. It's really one more milestone in our strategic plan."

The company held its grand opening ceremony in York in October. Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman attended and highlighted the importance of reducing reliance on imported oil, combating pollution, and creating economic opportunities in rural and urban Nebraska.

According to Santos-Leon, the York facility will research and test proprietary technology for its proposed commercial-scale biomass-to-ethanol facility in Hugoton, Kan. Abengoa will use a $76 million grant it received from the U.S. DOE earlier this year to move forward with that plant, which will process 770 tons of cellulosic crop residues such as switchgrass, corn stover, and sorghum and wheat straw into 11.4 MMgy of ethanol. The plant's on-site gasification module will produce renewable power for the company's adjacent enzymatic hydrolysis facility and proposed 88 MMgy corn-to-ethanol plant. The investment for the Hugoton projects would exceed $300 million. According to Santos-Leon, construction is expected to be complete by 2010 with production starting by 2011.

Both of Abengoa's biomass-to-ethanol facilities play a fundamental role in the DOE's Biofuels Initiative with the goal of reducing gasoline consumption by 20 percent in 10 years.

Abengoa has made several business moves lately. In September, it announced the sale of its 27 MMgy ethanol plant in Portales, N.M. At press time, the transaction was being managed by Minneapolis-based investment banking firm Goldsmith Agio Helms/Lazard Middle Market. Abengoa also purchased Dedini Agro, Brazil's largest ethanol and sugar producer, for $700 million. The acquisition broadened Abengoa's international model, which includes business in the United States, Brazil and Europe.