Wood-to-ethanol demo plant comes on line

By Ryan C. Christiansen | September 08, 2008
Gulf Coast Energy Inc. began operating its demonstration-scale wood gasification plant in Livingston, Ala., in August. The synthesis gas that it produces from the wood will be converted into ethanol, according to Scott Hazen, executive vice president for the company.

The demonstration plant's main feedstock source will be wood waste from the city of Hoover, Ala., a suburb of Birmingham located 100 miles northeast of Livingston. Eighty-five percent of Hoover's city fleet runs on renewable fuels, including 180 vehicles that use ethanol, according to Tony Petelos, mayor of Hoover, and Gulf Coast Energy will be selling the ethanol that it produces back to Hoover. Hoover recently delivered eight tons of wood waste to the Livingston facility.

Hazen said ethanol production at the plant will be intermittent. "We have a commitment with Hoover to process what we get from them through our demonstration plant, and so we'll run it at least enough to do that," he said. "Plus, for any [research and development] that we need to do, we will have some other feedstock. It would be at least enough to satisfy Hoover's needs, plus any additional needs that we have." Hazen added that the venture is "not completely a commercial enterprise, but we actually will be selling product out from there."

The Gulf Coast Energy project has been in the works for two-and-a-half years, Hazen said. The company was formed in April 2007. While the demonstration plant is operational, the company will begin designing a commercial-scale facility and will work to obtain all of the necessary funding for the endeavor.

Hazen said the company's process can produce 215 gallons of ethanol per dry ton of wood waste. Petelos said Hoover has enough wood waste to produce 350,000 to 400,000 gallons of ethanol per year.

Initially, the company will process only wood, but it could use other feedstocks, such as switchgrass, Hazen said. However, converting wood to ethanol is a natural choice in Alabama, he added. "With the cost of corn and the cost of processing ethanol with traditional technologies, plus the yields that we get with our process being significantly higher than any we found out there, it was just a lot of due diligence that pointed us in this direction," he said. "Being in Alabama, the wood industry is very established. All of the harvesting and transportation issues have been worked out. It was an easy choice for us."