FEW: Large crowd attends cellulosic integration discussion

By Kris Bevill | June 28, 2011

More than 200 attendees of the 27th annual International Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo (FEW) packed into the first cellulosic ethanol session of the event on June 28 to listen as industry experts discussed their views toward integrating cellulosic production at existing corn ethanol facilities. Seats filled quickly in advance of the presentations and as latecomers squeezed in along the walls, panel moderator Mark Penshorn, project manager for Science Applications International Corp.’s renewable energy group, began the session by pointing out that it will become impossible to plant enough corn to meet the U.S. federal government’s steadily increasing renewable fuel standard. “The obvious next step is cellulosic biofuel,” he said.

The panelists seemed in agreement that integrating cellulosic ethanol production with existing first-generation plants presents an ideal expansion opportunity. However their production techniques and views on preferred feedstocks differed slightly.

Doug Rivers, director of research and development at ICM Inc., took the lone position against corn stover as a primary feedstock. He displayed a photo taken of the 2009 corn crop which showed unharvested corn nearly buried in snowdrifts after the area received early, heavy snowfalls and attributed ICM’s stance on stover mostly to uncertainty of feedstock supply due to weather. "It is our position that we would hate to bank a $200 to $400 million cellulosic plant on a stover supply that doesn't get there,” he said. “So we see corn stover as an opportunist feedstock, where you may run it part of the year based on availability.”

Other speakers, representing Inbicon A/S and EdeniQ Inc., said they are continuing to explore it as one of the first primary cellulosic feedstocks. Inbicon’s project leader for North America, Paul Kamp, appealed to the ease of obtaining stover suppliers at existing ethanol plants and said that’s one reason why it makes sense for corn ethanol facilities to integrate cellulosic capabilities. “Your grain suppliers will also likely be your stover suppliers,” he said, adding, “we do a lot of work on it and we know we can do it.” Tom Griffin, vice president of technology at EdeniQ, said stover is the first feedstock of focus for his company, followed by switchgrass, bagasse, energy cane and wood sources.

Once a feedstock is identified, there are a variety of methods that can be installed to produce cellulosic ethanol at a first-generation plant. ICM and EdeniQ are in the final stages of deployment of pilot-scale facilities that will display their capabilities, the presenters said. An expansion of ICM’s pilot plant, located at the LifeLine Foods LLC plant in Saint Joseph, Mo., will be complete in early July and will be subjected to 10-day qualification runs this fall, Rivers said. Early next year, the company will conduct 60-day trial runs using switchgrass as feedstock. EdeniQ recently broke ground on its corn-to-celluosic conversion pilot plant in California will commission the 2 ton-per-day facility early next year. Inbicon is currently producing cellulosic ethanol at a demonstration facility in Kalundborg, Denmark.

Alan Propp, business development manager for engineering firm Merrick & Company, rounded out the panel by highlighting various other cellulosic technologies that he said have impressed his firm, representing biochemical, thermochemical and hybrid platforms. Regarding the thermochemical approach, he was mildly defensive of the failed approach taken by Range Fuels Inc., stating that “a lot of what you’ve heard about why they haven’t been successful is not accurate,” but declining to offer further details. He also noted the aggressive work done by Canada’s Enerkem Inc. to produce ethanol from municipal solid waste using a Fischer-Tropsch process. Others, including Coskata Inc., Ineos, and ZeaChem Inc., are working on hybrid processes that include using microbes to produce ethanol and other biochemicals from syngas. Propp mentioned increasing interest from companies seeking to produce chemicals as well as biofuels and offered an interesting theory on their attraction. “I think they all see that biofuels are the long-term elephant in the room but the processes that are needed to produce biochemicals are virtually the same,” he said. “Later, after they've worked all the kinks out of the production process, they can switch back to biofuels when they've gotten the production and operating costs down.”

The FEW is being held in Indianapolis June 27-30.