Edeniq celebrates corn to cellulosic migration plant startup

By Kris Bevill | June 27, 2012

Approximately 150 industry members, government officials, company stakeholders and plant personnel gathered at Edeniq Inc.’s headquarters in Visalia, Calif., on June 26 to celebrate the official launch of Edeniq’s pilot-scale corn to cellulosic migration (CCM) plant. The event included a ribbon cutting ceremony and informal plant tours as well as panel discussions on the future of the biofuels industry and how technologies like Edeniq’s can assist the existing industry’s expansion to second-generation biofuel production.

Edeniq President and CEO Brian Thome opened the event by expressing gratitude for the many partners working with his company to advance its technology. The 50,000 gallon per year pilot facility was constructed in partnership with Logos Technologies Inc. under a $25 million program funded 80 percent by the U.S. DOE’s Integrated Biorefinery Initiative Program. The California Energy Commission also recently awarded the project $3.9 million to further advance its cellulosic biofuel technology. Flint Hills Resources Renewables LLC recently invested in the company and became a customer, announcing plans to incrementally install Edeniq’s biomass mill and corn oil technology in at least one of its four corn ethanol plants. Indeed, “partnerships” was not just the theme of the event but is a firm goal of Edeniq’s, Thome said, adding that he believes partnerships will be a key to the industry’s overall future growth.

The star of the day, the plant itself, was actually commissioned earlier this year and was therefore up and running for the opening celebration. Lab workers were busily evaluating monitors and running tests while tour groups strolled through the facility. Metrics collected at the pilot plant will be used for scale-up opportunities at commercial-sized facilities, so while the equipment outside the plant looks very much like a miniature-sized ethanol facility, the inside of the building is very much a laboratory.

The production process at Edeniq’s CCM plant, as with any biomass-processing facility, begins with the feedstock. Corn stover, switchgrass and citrus wood are all being tested at the plant. The plant can process either ground or pelletized feedstocks, but pellets are preferred because they’re easier to work with and cheaper to transport. The feedstock is processed into a slurry, which is then fed into Edeniq’s trademarked Cellunator, a pretreatment mill with a deceptively large sounding name. The mill is actually quite compact, but the vessel performs the Herculean task of grinding particles in the slurry into uniform sizes for fermentation. Once that task is complete, the simultaneous saccharification and fermentation (SSF) can begin. The DOE’s goal for this project was to complete the SSF process in 76 hours, but Tom Griffin, project manager and chief technology officer at Edeniq, said the company has already smashed that goal, completing the process in close to 48 hours. Edeniq is “very much focused” on dropping that number even lower and has set its sights on completing the saccharification process in single-digit hours over the course of the next year, he said.

The end-goal of the CCM plant is to perfect the cellulosic ethanol production process. For that to be accomplished, the company needs to complete its development of Pathway enzymes, which will be applied along with a lesser amount of commercial enzymes to the sugars to produce cellulosic ethanol or, with a little tweaking, biochemicals. The enzymes have been under development for about two and a half years and are expected to be ready for use by the end of this year. In the meantime, however, the corn portion of the corn-to-cellulose migration plan is in full ramp-up mode, with several plants already using the Cellunator and more signed on to install the equipment. Two of those facilities were represented at the plant opening—Flint Hills Renewable Resources LLC and Plymouth Energy LLC. Eamonn Byrne, Plymouth Energy CEO, said his 50 MMgy plant has achieved a 3 percent yield increase since installing the Cellunator to process additional starch from its existing feedstock into material for ethanol production. That translates to 1.5 MMgy of ethanol from fiber that would otherwise be sent out the back door in the distillers grains. Byrne said that in an industry that operates on extremely tight margins, even slight yield improvements can make a huge difference. “When it’s a tight game you need every drop you can get,” he said.

Jeff Miano, director of renewable fuels and green chemistry at Flint Hills, said he has been approached by every cellulosic technology developer in the industry, but Edeniq has been the only company so far to address the three items he finds to be most desirable – efficiency improvements by way of the Cellunator, optimization opportunities through corn oil extraction technology and cellulosic production capabilities. Those qualities satisfy Flint Hills’ desire to gain as great of a competitive edge as possible. Therefore the company decided to invest in Edeniq and install its equipment at its plants, Miano said. In addition to the Cellunator and corn oil extraction technology installments, Flint Hills has also signed on to use the Pathway enzymes when they become available and Miano said he looks forward to the CCM plant allowing Flint Hills to increase its profits even further.

Other panelists focused on profits and financial investments from an overall industry viewpoint. Mackinnon Lawrence, senior analyst at Pike Research, tackled the uncomfortable topic of industry challenges and future trends during his comments. He attributed the lack of investment in biofuels projects over the past few years to several factors: the “post-stimulus hangover,” volatile oil prices, threats to the U.S. renewable fuel standard (RFS), and lack of knowledge due to what he called the industry’s “loss of the torch bearer.” However, he said he believes the industry is at the beginning of a new cycle of innovation which will lead to advanced integrated biorefineries, and said Edeniq’s technology is capable of attributing to a rapid build-out of those types of facilities.

Venture capitalist John Rockwell, who was one of Edeniq’s initial investors and also serves on the company’s board of directors, said the venture community has been “schizophrenic” when it comes to biofuels projects, partially because many of those who initially invested didn’t understand commodities markets and were soon scared away. However, there are a small group of investors who do understand the markets and biofuels industry and will continue to invest, he said. Rockwell became a stakeholder in Edeniq based on the fact that its plan includes adding equipment and cellulosic streams to existing ethanol facilities, resulting in project costs that are closer to $15 million than $300 million. The bolt-on cellulosic technology won’t produce massive amounts of ethanol per plant, probably only around 5 MMgy, “but it’s financeable,” Rockwell said. 

Edeniq currently employs about 90 people at offices in California, Nebraska and Brazil. The company is actively involved in project development in locations in the U.S. and Brazil and will continue to develop its technology with an eye toward efficiency improvements and bolt-on cellulosic technology. Future developments will include an advanced version of the Cellunator and the completion of a life-cycle analysis of its process.