ZeaChem a step closer to its ethanol goal

By Holly Jessen | April 15, 2010
Posted April 21, 2010

ZeaChem Inc. has reached another milestone on the way to producing cellulosic ethanol. The Lakewood, Colo., based business announced that it has successfully produced commercial grade ethyl acetate—the final step necessary in proving its biorefining technology.

Ethyl acetate can be sold to chemical manufacturers or, through hydrogenation, converted into ethanol. Process expert Sulzer Chemtech validated ZeaChem's esterification reaction process of converting glacial acetic acid into ethyl acetate. "These results demonstrate ZeaChem's ability to produce another valuable bio-based intermediate chemical on the road toward cellulosic ethanol production," said Jim Imbler, president and chief executive officer of ZeaChem.

Ethyl acetate is a widely used chemical in paints, printing inks, pharmaceuticals and packaging—even decaffeinating coffee. There is a $2.2 billion global and $115 million U.S. market for ethyl acetate. The ZeaChem way of producing it, however, costs less compared to current production methods.

The next step is to start building its 250,000 gallon-per-year demonstration scale cellulosic biorefinery in Boardman, Ore. The company is ready to start site work in the "near term" and expects it to come online this year, Imbler told EPM. Skid mounted fermenters have been already operating for data collection at its research and development laboratory facility in Menlo Park, Calif. Those units and others will be shipped to the Boardman location, for final assembly of the demonstration plant.

The Boardman plant will first produce ethyl acetate. Using a $25 million U.S. DOE grant ZeaChem received in December, the company will ramp up to cellulosic ethanol production. ZeaChem's technology makes use of acetogen, a microorganism present in the guts of termites, horses, cows and other animals. "It's Mother Nature's way of breaking down biomass and turning it into chemicals," he said.

Fifteen years ago, the company's founders were looking for a more energy efficient way to ferment biomass without releasing CO2. Unlike fermentation with yeast, in which one of every three carbons is released, the process ZeaChem uses ferments the sugars to acetic acid without CO2 as a by-product. "It's a much more efficient pathway," he said.