Commissioning begins at Ontario cellulosic ethanol demo plant

By Susanne Retka Schill | October 25, 2012

Woodland Biofuels Inc. has begun commissioning its new demonstration cellulosic ethanol facility in Sarnia, Ontario. “We’re in the preliminary stages of commissioning,” CEO Greg Nuttall told Ethanol Producer Magazine. “We’re testing each piece of equipment. Within a couple of weeks we will be ready to move to staged startup.”  Located at the Bio Industrial Innovation Centre, the facility will be capable of handling 7.2 metric tons per day of wood waste, or about 2,400 metric tons per year.

Woodland Biofuels’ thermochemical process is based on its unique Catalyzed Pressure Reduction technology. Syngas produced in a standard gasifier is run through a series of catalyzed chemical reactions to convert the syngas into ethanol. Less than10 percent of the original biomass is left at the end in the form of ash or char. We’re confident our first commercial plant will produce 100 to 110 gallons from a metric ton of dry biomass, and we believe we’ll be able to work our way up to 130 gallons,” Nuttall said.

Commissioning of the demonstration plant is expected to be completed and ethanol production will begin by the end of the year. Enough data should be gathered by late March to be used for commercialization plans, Nuttall said. With the initial target feedstock being wood waste, the company is looking in Ontario and the southeastern U.S. for the site of its first commercial-scale facility.  “The forest industry in North America has seen better days,” he said. “There are hundreds of potential sites.”

Nuttall said the demonstration facility will help to refine the process and pin down system costs. Woodland plants will be smaller-scale, modular units that can be built at a scale to suit a particular location. “We are expecting to have reasonable capital cost,” he said, which, in turn, will lead to reasonable production costs. “We are expecting to be able to make a gallon of ethanol at a considerably lower cost than what oil companies can make a gallon of gasoline for.”    

In his years with Woodland Biofuels in the development stages, he adds that he’s become more cautious about putting numbers to the company’s plans. “I like to under promise and over deliver,” he said. In that time, prospects for the thermochemical approach to cellulosic ethanol has improved, he added. Initially, enzymatic hydrolysis and fermentation was considered the most promising pathway. “Now, the thermochemical route is likely to be the most efficient way,” he said. “Five years ago, that wasn’t the thinking.” Nuttall points out that the enzymatic treatment and fermentation require tanks and other expenses that the Woodland process does not. “Once we’ve created syngas, then we’re a chemical plant. “We have tall towers, but the diameters are not particularly big.”

Woodland Biofuels is a privately held Canadian company. Investors in the $12 million demonstration plant include the Ontario Emerging Technologies Fund, Investeco Capital, and David LeGresley, former vice-chairman of National Bank Financial. OETF is a $250 million fund established by the Province of Ontario to co-invest alongside qualified investors in innovative, high-growth, private Ontario companies. Investeco Capital is a private equity firm focused primarily on high-growth companies.