ZeaChem completes core construction at demo plant

By Kris Bevill | January 04, 2012

ZeaChem Inc. has met another milestone in its march toward becoming one of the first true integrated biorefineries in the U.S. Construction of its Boardman, Ore., demonstration-scale project’s core has been successfully completed and the company said it is beginning biochemical production operations as scheduled. The project was not only completed on time but came in significantly under budget, according to ZeaChem CEO Jim Imbler, who declined to disclose the exact project cost. He credited the project’s successful completion to the strong teamwork and management skills at both ZeaChem and engineering firm Burns & McDonnell, which oversaw the engineering, procurement and construction of the project.

ZeaChem’s plant will have the production capacity of 250,000 gallons per year, but it is not expected to produce half that amount this year. The core technology recently completed will be used to produce acetic acid and ethyl acetate using hybrid poplar trees as the primary feedstock. Imbler declined to release details on the exact amount of chemicals expected to be produced this year due to confidentiality agreements with end-users who will test the products, but he indicated enough chemicals will be produced to supply “truckloads” of product to users for testing. “That’s one of the advantages of the demonstration plant is it allows us to produce enough for chemical players,” he said. Other potential biochemical producers operating pilot-scale facilities have been hampered by an inability to produce chemicals in the amount desired by end-users for testing purposes, he said.

Per an agreement reached between the two companies in October, Pacific Ethanol Inc., which operates a neighboring corn-based ethanol facility, is providing operational support at ZeaChem’s demo plant. Imbler said the assistance from Pacific Ethanol has been “phenomenal” for ZeaChem so far, as the company has contributed work force and operational capabilities to the project.

The next construction phase for ZeaChem’s demo plant will put in place cellulosic ethanol production capabilities. Funded by a grant from the U.S. DOE, that portion of the project is still expected to be complete by mid-year, Imbler said. In its 2012 renewable fuel standard volume requirements, the U.S. EPA said it expects ZeaChem to contribute 50,000 gallons of cellulosic ethanol to the transportation fuels market this year. Imbler hesitantly agreed that ZeaChem will probably be able to produce that amount, but said it is difficult to predict production volumes from a demonstration-scale facility because its primary purpose is to prove the process.

Last fall, ZeaChem was also part of a coalition which received a $40 million USDA grant to develop biogasoline and jet fuel production from hybrid poplar. Imbler said construction of that portion of the demo plant will begin later this year and should be complete sometime in 2013.