Zeachem breaks ground on demo plant

By Anna Austin | May 21, 2010
Posted June 2, 2010

Zeachem Inc. broke ground today on its 250,000 gallon-per-year cellulosic ethanol and ethyl acetate demonstration plant in Boardman, Ore., and is still on track with previously mapped-out commercialization plans despite tough economic conditions that have hampered or halted other biofuels projects across the country.

According to Zeachem President Jim Imbler, the hard times are actually good for some developers. "It weeds out the weak," he said. Imbler added that strong support from local, state and federal government as well as investors and project partners have largely influenced the company's ability to maintain its momentum.

The first stage of the project will implement the company's core process—built and tested at Hazen Research facility in Golden, Colo.—which is fermentation to ethyl acetate, a salable chemical intermediate and precursor to cellulosic ethanol. The following stage, supported by a $25 million grant from the U.S. DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Biomass Program through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, will produce cellulosic ethanol. "The interesting thing about ethyl acetate is that it takes about half the equipment that ethanol takes to make, but sells for twice the amount,"Imbler said. He said the company's "stage" strategy is similar to building with Lego blocks. "We build one block at a time, optimize it, and then add another," he said. "It's very traditional in the way that chemical plants are built; the majority of the time they are add-ons."

Imbler said Zeachem chose Boardman as the project's location because of the company's contract with GreenWood Resources, a Portland-based timberland investment manager, to obtain sustainable hybrid poplars from nearby farms held by GreenWood Tree Farm Fund LP. Wheat straw and other energy crops/waste streams will also be utilized at the plant, to produce about 135 gallons of ethanol per bone dry ton.

"We view our platform as more of a biorefinery," said Imbler, who has an extensive background in oil refining. "We have a process that allows us to take molecules off at different steps, which we can do based on market pricing. Our C2 platform, which we are focusing on right now, produces three products—acetic acid, ethyl acetate and ethanol—and we will be producing each of them at this plant for commercial testing."

The Oregon Employment Department calculated that the construction and operation of the demonstration biorefinery will create 292 direct and indirect jobs in Oregon, 167 of which will be located in Morrow County, where Boardman is located.

Zeachem hopes to have a license agreement signed by the end of this year to build its first commercial plant, and has begun work on its C3 platform to produce lactic and propionic acids.

Overall, Imbler said the company has simply stuck to its plan. "[Sticking to the plan] is what makes or breaks new companies," he said. "The world is your oyster, but you have to decide what you're going to do without being too flashy and just execute."

This article originally appeared at www.biomassmagazine.com