New semi-commercial cellulosic ethanol facility under construction

By Kris Bevill | November 11, 2009
Report posted Nov. 18, 2009, at 10:00 a.m. CST

Cellulosic ethanol developer ZeaChem Inc. has announced it has begun construction of a 250,000-gallon-per-year semi-commercial scale production facility. The company has enlisted Hazen Research Inc. in Golden, Colo., to fabricate the front-end fermentation modules and will install the units at ZeaChem's Boardman, Ore., site. The facility is expected to be fully operational by the end of 2010.

ZeaChem President and CEO Jim Imbler said the company is slightly ahead of its targeted schedule due to Hazen Research's participation in the module construction. The company, an industrial research and development firm with expertise in the extractive metallurgy and chemical industries, will construct and host the initial process unit as well as provide infrastructure and operations support to ZeaChem. The facility in Boardman will be built using skid mounted design, which allows ZeaChem the ability to optimize unit operations earlier in the process and to add more skids as necessary.

Imbler said ZeaChem's process is unique because of the naturally occurring bacteria it utilizes to produce both chemicals and ethanol. The Moorella thermoacetica bacteria is "nature's way of breaking down biomass," according to Imbler. It is found in many natural environments and is used widely in waste water treatment facilities. "Our basic model is: no new bugs and no new technology," he said.

ZeaChem's bug can easily handle difficult feedstocks, including hybrid poplar, which will be ZeaChem's primary feedstock. The company has a long-term feedstock supply agreement with Greenwood Resources Inc. in Oregon to fulfill its woody biomass requirements.

ZeaChem's technology uses a combination of biochemical and thermochemical processing steps to produce acetic acid, which can then be converted to both ethyl acetate and ethanol. Imbler said ethyl acetate is worth more than ethanol, so the company anticipates that it will not be making ethanol at times. However, he said the company currently has offtake agreements for both products.

The bacteria used by ZeaChem do not produce carbon dioxide as a byproduct, which Imbler said lowers the carbon footprint of its products' production and will translate into higher yields of ethanol per gallon of feedstock. He expects to produce 135 gallons of ethanol per dry ton of hybrid poplar and said that most competitors project their yields to be only about 90 gallons per ton.

Coskata Inc., which recently opened its semi-commercial cellulosic production facility in Pennsylvania, uses combination technique to process feedstock that is somewhat similar to ZeaChem's, according to Imbler. However, one major difference is that Coskata gasifies everything and ZeaChem doesn't gasify any material unless it can't be converted otherwise, he said. "It's interesting that the two [companies] out there are both using a very different approach from most of the other players," Imbler said. "I think the reason you're seeing that is that a lot of the biological players still have the fundamental issue of enzymes and feedstocks. We don't have the feedstock issues because our bug was put on Earth to convert cellulosic sugars into acetic acid." ZeaChem's process also does not require the use of enzymes.

Imbler said the company plans to begin engineering its first commercial-scale plant immediately after the semi-commercial process is complete. He expects the commercial facility to produce between 25 MMgy and 50 MMgy, beginning in 2012 or 2013. The plant will also be located in Oregon, near the company's feedstock supply.