Cellulosic Snapshot

EPM reviews the status of U.S. cellulosic ethanol projects.
By Anna Austin | June 10, 2010
Sprinkled evenly across the country, the 25-plus cellulosic ethanol projects in the U.S. are utilizing a variety of conversion methods and feedstocks. While some companies/projects have been around for years, several are quite new, and all are moving at different speeds. Overall progress has been slower than expected when the renewable fuels standard (RFS2) was developed in the Energy Independence and Security Act with targets for mandated use of cellulosic ethanol included.

As many suspected would happen, the U.S. EPA significantly dropped the 2010 cellulosic biofuel requirement with the release of the RFS2 final rule. Initially an overly ambitious 100 million gallons, the 2010 requirement is now a significantly lower 6.5 million ethanol-equivalent gallons. The new cellulosic biofuel standard is based on an updated market analysis considering detailed information from pilot and demonstration-scale plants, an Energy Information Administration analysis, and other publically and privately available market information, according to the EPA.

Despite the huge overestimate, the EPA maintains that a number of companies and projects appear to be poised to expand production over the next several years. Additionally, since the cellulosic standard is lower than the level otherwise required by EISA, cellulosic credits will be available to obligated parties for end-of-year compliance, if needed, at a price of $1.56 per gallon (gallon-RIN). The EPA intends to continue to assess the growth of the cellulosic biofuel industry and issue a notice of proposed rulemaking each spring and a final rule by Nov. 30 of each year to set the renewable fuel standard for each ensuing year.

The fledgling cellulosic ethanol industry is working hard to bring capacity online to serve the mandated volumes that will expand as installed capacity increases. The nation's two top ethanol producers are moving forward with plans to keep them at the forefront of cellulosic ethanol production as well.

ADM and Poet
Poet LLC unveiled its cellulosic ethanol pilot plant in Scotland, S.D., in early 2009, leading towards deployment of Project Liberty, the planned 25 MMgy plant to produce ethanol from corn cobs to be co-located with Poet's corn-to-ethanol plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa. Poet CEO Jeff Broin says the company filed an application [for a loan guarantee] with the DOE in April, and needs to have a favorable ruling on it this calendar year. "If we get that favorable ruling, we told the DOE that we will start construction by the end of this year, which puts us on track to start up the facility in early 2012," he says. This spring, Poet announced its long term goal to add 1 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol production from corn stover to its existing 26 ethanol plants, and produce an estimated total of 3.5 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol by 2022, or more than 20 percent of the cellulosic ethanol mandated by RFS2.

Archer Daniels Midland Co. hasn't made its goals public, but in December the company announced it had received a $24.8 million DOE grant to develop and construct a facility in Decatur, Iowa, to convert biomass into renewable fuel. "Biofuels remain the only widely available alternative transportation fuel available today. This project demonstrates ADM's commitment to advanced biofuels and our work to meet the goals of the renewable fuel standard program," said Todd Werpy, ADM vice president, biofuels and biochemical research. The facility will fractionate lignocellulosics with one fraction used to produce ethanol and another fraction used to produce ethyl acrylate, a compound used in plastics, adhesives and coatings. The pretreatment process being developed will also be used in ADM's efforts to commercialize biocrude, a project being conducted in alliance with ConocoPhillips.

Earlier, ADM received DOE support for a joint project with Purdue University to commercialize a fermentation process using highly efficient yeast to convert cellulosic materials into ethanol fuel. On the feedstock side, ADM is partnering with Deere & Company and Monsanto to identify environmentally, agronomically and economically sustainable methods for the harvest, storage and transport of corn stover.
A number of other cellulosic ethanol projects are moving through the pilot and demonstration stages aiming towards full commercialization. The following is a snapshot of a number of those projects.

Since 2007, Spanish cellulosic ethanol producer Abengoa Bioenergy S.A. has operated a pilot plant in York, Neb., capable of processing 1.5 tons of agricultural residues per day through an enzymatic hydrolysis process. In January, Abengoa announced it had teamed up with Mid-Kansas Electric Co. LLC to develop a cellulosic ethanol and power plant in Stevens County, Kan., that will produce 15 MMgy of ethanol and 75 megawatts of power each year. Abengoa Bioenergy Hybrid of Kansas will use corn stover, wheat straw and switchgrass as feedstocks, procured from producers from seven counties within a 50-mile radius of the plant. ABHK will require about 2,500 tons of biomass per day. Abengoa received a $76 million U.S. DOE grant to help fund the project. Chris Roach, ABHK project development manager, says construction is slated to commence late 2010; completion is targeted for 2012.

Lancaster, Calif.-based BlueFire Ethanol Inc. owns a company-developed patented Arkenol Concentrated Acid Hydrolysis Technology that processes wood wastes, post-sorted municipal solid waste (MSW), rice and wheat straws and other agricultural residues. The company has operated a pilot plant near its southern California offices for roughly five years, and says it is "fully permitted and shovel-ready" to begin work on a 3.9 MMgy facility in Lancaster. In addition, with a total of $88 million in DOE funding and a possible $250 million dollar DOE loan guarantee, for which BlueFire submitted an application in February, the company will construct a 19 MMgy commercial scale facility in Fulton, Mo.

Developed by Oklahoma State University and University of Oklahoma researchers, Coskata Inc.'s hybrid gasification/fermentation process technology is capable of converting multiple biomass feedstocks, including woody biomass, agricultural waste, energy crops and construction/industrial wastes, into synthesis gas.

Along with strategic investor General Motors and plasma gasification company Alter NRG Corp., Coskata officially unveiled its $25 million semi-commercial cellulosic ethanol facility near Madison, Pa., in October 2009, and soon after announced plans for a commercial facility that will be located in the Southeast. According to vice president of government affairs Wes Bolsen, the 55 MMgy facility will utilize 1 to 1.2 million green tons of woody biomass, and upon successful commissioning, will enable the company to license the technology.

Canadian cellulosic ethanol producer Enerkem Inc. is planning a commercial- scale facility plant in Pontotoc, Miss. The $250 million project will recycle and convert approximately 60 percent, or 189,000 tons of MSW at the Three Rivers Landfill where the 20 MMgy facility will be built. Besides a $50 million U.S. DOE grant, Enerkem recently scored a new round of financing—$50.9 million—from existing and new investors, which includes Waste Management Inc. The company is finalizing project agreements says Marie-Helene Labrie, vice president of government affairs. The construction start date has not been determined, Labrie says, as it is dependent on the completion of a National Environmental Policy Act review by the DOE. Enerkem began operations in January 2009 at its commercial-scale syngas-to-ethanol/methanol plant in Westbury, Quebec,

INEOS New Planet Energy
INEOS Bio describes the heart of its combined thermo-chemical and biochemical process as a patented anaerobic fermentation step, through which naturally occurring bacteria convert biomass gases from wood, vegetative residues or construction and demolition materials into ethanol. In 2009, the DOE announced INEOS New Planet Energy LLC would receive a $50 million dollar grant to build an 8 MMgy advanced bioenergy facility in Indian River County, Fla., that will also produce 2 MW of electricity. Construction is due to begin this summer.

KL Energy
South Dakota-based KL Energy Corp. employs a proprietary thermal-mechanical pre-treatment process that utilizes non-food wood and herbaceous feedstocks. The company began operations at its 1.5 MMgy Western Biomass Energy demonstration scale facility in Upton, Wyo., in early 2008, where the company says it has successfully validated the process and yields initially debuted at its pilot facility in Rapid City, S.D. KL Energy expects to complete upgrades to its demo plant by the third quarter of 2010 to expand its feedstock flexibility. It will restart with a multiple campaign demonstration program with sugarcane bagasse as feedstock.

Utilizing a Consolidated Bioprocessing technology that uses yeast and bacteria engineered to produce large quantities of enzymes, Boston-based Mascoma Corp.'s 200,000 gallon per year pilot plant in Rome, N.Y., went on line in the spring of 2009. Justin van Rooyan, vice president of business development, says the pilot facility operates intermittently, producing fuel for testing. The technology being demonstrated in Rome will be deployed at a commercial facility in Kinross township, Mich., a project for which Mascoma and affiliate Frontier Renewable Resources will be applying for a loan guarantee for this year, van Rooyan adds. One of Mascoma's notable partnerships is a feedstock processing and lignin supply agreement with Chevron Technology Ventures, a division of Chevron U.S.A. Inc., under which CTV will provide various sources of lignocellulosic feedstock to Mascoma. Mascoma will convert the feedstock to cellulosic ethanol using its CBP technology, and provide the lignin byproduct to CTV for evaluation.

Range Fuels
Soperton, Ga.-based Range Fuels Inc. went public in November 2007, announcing intentions to build the world's first commercially viable cellulosic ethanol plant with the help of a $76 million U.S. DOE grant. This spring, Range secured an $80 million USDA loan guarantee to complete the first project phase and begin initiating phase two.

The first project phase includes one gasifier unit that will handle 125 dry tons of wood per day purchased from local suppliers, says CEO David Aldous. "As we continue to scale up, we'll use the same size equipment but add multiple (gasifier) units," he says. The plant, which employs a two-step thermochemical conversion process, was on schedule to start up the last week in May, according to Aldous. "[Commissioning] has gone extremely well thus far," he adds.

In 1995, Verenium Corp., then known as Celunol, secured an exclusive license to commercialize proprietary cellulosic ethanol technology developed at the University of Florida. In 1999, it completed a pilot plant in Jennings, La., where it successfully conducted combined C5 and C6 fermentations. In April, Verenium announced it had scored an additional $4.9 million from the DOE to fund ongoing activities at its operating 1.4 MMgy demonstration-scale facility, which is co-located with its pilot plant, as an extension of the grant previously awarded in July 2008. The company has teamed up with BP Biofuels for a 36 MMgy commercial-scale project in south central Florida, and plans to break ground on the project this year.

Headquartered in Lakewood, Colo., Zeachem Inc. was set to break ground on its 250,000 gallon per year demonstration facility in Boardman, Ore., in early June. Zeachem describes its technology as a hybrid process that fully utilizes all of the available carbon from the cellulose and hemicellulose in a biochemical (fermentation) process, while producing hydrogen from the lignin fraction through a thermochemical process. In May, Zeachem received a $25 million grant awarded by the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Biomass Program to add cellulosic ethanol production capability to the core ZeaChem technology, which currently produces ethyl acetate. The company plans to use purpose-grown popular trees as a feedstock at its Boardman facility, which is expected to begin producing in 2011.

There are other projects in the U.S. and Canada in various stages of development by Dupont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol, Iogen, Qteros, ICM, AE Biofuels, Pacific Ethanol and others. Some will be successful and some may not work out as anticipated. Either way, all of these projects are forerunners in helping to meet domestic energy goals and loosen the tight clutch fossil fuels have on the U.S. EP

Anna Austin is a Biomass Magazine associate editor. Reach her at 701-738-4968 or [email protected]