ZeaChem gets grant to expand demo plant for jet fuel

By Kris Bevill | September 28, 2011

The USDA announced the award of more than $136 million in grants through its Agriculture and Food Research Initiative on Sept. 28, all focused on developing regional, renewable energy markets and expanding domestic advanced biofuels production. Five regional research projects were announced—two in Washington and one each in Iowa, Louisiana and Tennessee. University teams will lead the five-year research projects but a number of private companies will collaborate on the research.

In Washington, ZeaChem Inc. is part of a coalition led by the University of Washington which received $40 million to develop biogasoline and renewable jet fuel production from hybrid poplar trees. ZeaChem will lead the research and development and will test the process at its 250,000 gallon per year demonstration-scale plant in Boardman, Ore., which is scheduled to begin producing biochemicals by the end of this year. About $12 million of the grant will be used to install process units at the plant to enable the conversion of cellulosic ethanol into jet and diesel fuels. During a press call to discuss details of the grant, CEO Jim Imbler said that the jet fuel development is an enhancement of ZeaChem’s product line and won’t necessarily impact its plans to produce cellulosic ethanol, but indicated that the value of jet fuel compared to ethanol will influence future production decisions. “This allows us to get to two key molecules - the ethylene and propylene - which are phenomenally large markets that expose you to a lot of different things,” he said. “Our goal has always been to use low-cost feedstocks, convert them at a low cost and sell the highest value molecule the market wants.”

ZeaChem’s demo plant is on schedule to produce acetic acid and ethyl acetate by 2012. The U.S. DOE is providing $25 million toward the cellulosic ethanol portion of the plant, which is scheduled to become operational next year. It is expected the jet and diesel fuels will be produced at the plant in 2013, with biogasoline production to follow in 2015.

ZeaChem has also proposed its first commercial-scale plant to be built near the demo facility and expects to break ground on that 25 MMgy plant in approximately one year. Portland, Ore.-based GreenWood Resources Inc. has signed on to provide poplar for both facilities and was named as a USDA Biomass Crop Assistance Program project area in July with the intent of establishing 7,000 acres of hybrid poplar near Boardman to feed ZeaChem’s plants. GreenWood is also a partner in the latest $40 million research project, along with Oregon State University, Washington State University, the University of California, Davis, Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and the Agricultural Center for Excellence at Walla Walla Community College in Washington, the University of Idaho and Case New Holland.

“GreenWood Resources appreciates the USDA’s support and the recognition of hybrid poplar as an excellent non-food feedstock resource for the production of advanced biofuels and bio-based chemicals,” President and CEO Jeff Nuss said in a statement. “Furthermore, I foresee a great opportunity and a strong future in serving this country’s renewable energy goals through this grant.” GreenWood will be responsible for establishing hybrid poplar acres for the research project and will manage first-stage farms and coordinate various ecological-focused aspects of the project. GreenWood is also involved in another $40 million AFRI grant, led by Washington State University, which will explore sustainable forest production for the purpose of developing renewable aviation fuels. For that project, GreenWood will provide its knowledge of agroforestry to the group with the intent of supplementing some of the Pacific Northwest’s coniferous forests with hybrid poplar.