Milestones Reached

Cellulosic ethanol is arriving, with commissioning under way and more than 100 MMgy under construction.
By Susanne Retka Schill | October 05, 2012

The next five years—the often scoffed mantra of cellulosic ethanol developers—is getting whittled down to the next year or two. A milestone was reached this year when Blue Sugars Corp. got the first cellulosic renewable identification number (RIN) issued by the U.S. EPA. Another notable event happened in June, when Ineos Bio began commissioning its plant in Florida. Construction continues on several plants, while other projects are closing in on financing and new ones continue to be announced. For example, Chemtex International Inc. announced a new 20 MMgy project in North Carolina, even as it is commissioning its first, similarly sized plant in Crescentino, Italy.

The Ethanol Producer Magazine fall plant map, mailed with this issue, shows 6.25 MMgy of cellulosic capacity in the U.S. and Canada at nine demonstration plants and more than 104 MMgy under construction, coming online next year and in 2014. The industry knows only too well, though, that commissioning plants that are first-of-their-kind is fraught with uncertainty. Range Fuels was fast out of the gate, building a plant at Soperton, Ga., which it completed in late 2010. Based on well-known Fischer-Tropsch technology, an industry insider said the company thought it could skip from lab-scale to commercial-scale. They couldn’t. The company did succeed in producing methanol, but failed to successfully produce ethanol and ultimately defaulted on its loan. The plant was picked up at the foreclosure sale by New Zealand-based LanzaTech, which continues to evaluate the facility for use with its gas-to-fuels and chemicals process.

Cellulosic ethanol developments are still fluid. Coskata Inc. announced this summer it is refocusing its efforts and turning to natural gas as a feedstock to use with its technology, thus taking it off the list of cellulosic ethanol developers, at least for now. Royal Dutch Shell ended its support of cellulosic project development with its two big partners, Iogen Inc. and Codexis Inc., both of which announced big layoffs. One of the early technology developers, Terrabon Inc., filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in August, ending work on its MixAlco technology. Qteros made no announcements and company officials did not respond to repeated attempts for comment, but its website is down, local media reported the research facility was closed and in late September, its equipment was put up for auction. The changing fortunes of early developers and shifting business models is not unexpected, but progress is being made, nonetheless.

International Effort
It is a fitting irony that the first gallons of cellulosic ethanol assigned RINs in the U.S. were shipped to Brazil, as it underscores the internationalization of development efforts. The 20,000-some gallons of cellulosic ethanol was produced at the Upton, Wyo., demonstration plant operated by Blue Sugars Corp. (formerly KL Energy Corp.) The company announced its new name this summer, along with an extension of its development partnership and the first commercial licensing agreement with Brazil’s big oil company, Petrobras SA. Since 2010, the two have been collaborating on Blue Sugar’s technology, using bagasse as the feedstock. Petrobras used the shipment both for testing and to fuel a fleet at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development held in Brazil this summer. At that time, the company announced engineering had begun for the first commercial unit to be co-located at one of its sugarcane mills, with start-up slated for 2015.

“Petrobras has been an outstanding partner,” says CEO Peter Gross. “Petrobras supported us in many ways, not only financially, but also in the areas of R&D, engineering, industrial operations. One interesting example has been Petrobras’ experience from operating nine sugarcane mills in Brazil. This has helped us in developing a technology designed to the industrial reality and requirements of sugarcane mills.” A large reduction in the use of enzymes was achieved in the most recent iteration of the hydrolysis process, he reports. “A change to multiple sugar streams and the breakdown of the process into several stages allows for great process and operating flexibility.”  Blue Sugars is returning to pine wood—its first feedstock of choice—in a new joint development program with Finland energy company ST1 Group Oy.

Internationalization is apparent in Florida as well, where the 8 MMgy Ineos New Planet BioEnergy LLC plant is being commissioned. The Vero Beach project is a joint venture between a Florida-based developer and Ineos Bio, one of the 15 business units of a company headquartered in Lyndhurst, Hampshire, U.K. Privately held Ineos Group Ltd. is the third largest chemical company globally, comprised of facilities acquired from BP chemicals when the oil company exited the commodity chemicals sector in 2005, along with other acquisitions. Ineos operates 60 chemical production facilities in 13 countries and licenses a large portfolio of chemical intellectual property. It purchased its cellulosic ethanol technology from Bioengineering Resources Inc. in 2008, along with BRI’s research facility in Fayetteville, Ark. More than 40,000 hours of run time have been chalked up in the pilot facility, and, with the company’s expertise in managing chemical facilities, Ineos Bio spokesman Dan Cummings speaks confidently about its ability to succeed. Commissioning, a complex process for a new, integrated process that includes gasification, heat recovery and power generation, began in June, he says. The technology is based on the microbial conversion of syngas into ethanol with separation through distillation, which Cummings adds is a continuous process taking just 10 minutes from when the feedstock enters the gasifier until it exits as ethanol.    

Commissioning of Chemtex’s commercial-scale plant in Italy has also been under way for some time. In early September, the boiler was being started up, says Dennis Leong, executive vice president, marketing and business development for Chemtex Global SA.  “We fully expect to have it producing in the November/December time frame.” Chemtex is the global engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) subsidiary of Mossi & Ghisolfi Group, an Italy-based, privately held chemical firm. In August, Chemtex announced it had received a conditional USDA loan guarantee for a 20 MMgy project in Sampson County, N.C., with a 2014 start-up targeted. Earlier, the project received a grant through the USDA Biomass Crop Assistance program to establish 4,000 acres of switchgrass and miscanthus.

Further south, a developer announced a 20 MMgy plant in Lenox, Ga., is under construction. A native of Australia, Scot Corbett, CEO of the World Ethanol Institute LLC, moved to the U.S. in 1993 to continue developing the paulownia tree as part of the World Paulownia Institute. While the company originally targeted its development of the fast-growing tree for forestry, he says it is now focusing on energy, both cellulosic ethanol and fuel pellets. The tree can be harvested on demand, and will regenerate from the stump annually, getting yields of 20 to 30 tons per acre per year.  The company has a patent-pending process called CHIPS, or combined heat, ice, power and steam. The pretreatment is a continuous process using steam explosion and acid hydrolysis, followed by standard fermentation using another technology provider’s modified yeast.  “We’ve done testing with the University of Georgia and reconfirmed with the labs at Golden, Colo.,” he says, “We’re pretty confident.” As a privately funded venture, the project has maintained a low profile, he adds. “We haven’t needed the exposure to get financing.” Other advantages are that the plant is co-located with a sawmill and plywood plant to share infrastructure as well as the fact that Corbett owns related companies to handle engineering, procurement and construction duties. “The building is up,” Corbett says. “The equipment is being ordered and we expect to be completed in late 2013.”

Abengoa BioEnergy is a familiar player in the U.S. ethanol industry, operating six first-generation plants with a total capacity of 374 MMgy. It is a subsidiary of Spain-based Abengoa, a big player in the renewable energy sector with major projects in wind and solar energy around the globe, as well as more conventional large power facilities. Its first cellulosic ethanol facility has been under construction in Hugoton, Kans., for a year. “The ferm tanks are up, the beer well is up, the distillation tower is up, the water treatment facility is done,” says Chris Standlee, executive vice president. “It’s looking like a plant now.” Abengoa has had staff on the ground at Hugoton for three years, he adds, getting feedstock contracts in place. The 25 MMgy plant will tap corn stover and switchgrass as feedstock. Even in a drought year like this one, Standlee says there will be plenty of biomass available. The company expects to require less than 15 percent of the available biomass from a 50-mile radius. 

Ground has been broken at BlueFire Renewables Inc.’s 19 MMgy plant in Fulton, Miss., and some site work is ongoing, reports company spokesman Richard Klann.  The bulk of construction activity is on hold, however, awaiting financing.  “Our lender of record for a USDA loan guarantee was not approved,” he explains. “We’re trying a more traditional financing model.” BlueFire is in negotiations with China Huadian Engineering Co., a unit of China Huadian Corp., which is China’s fourth largest utility, to invest in the Fulton facility. Huadian would gain, in return, BlueFire technology. “We can help them with making their power plants more profitable and they’re interested in getting into the U.S.,” Klann says.

The company has also formed a new subsidiary, SucreSource LLC, to market its front-end process for sugar production, a concentrated acid hydrolysis with chromographic separation of acid from the sugars, recycling acid in the process. GS Caltex, a Korean oil and petrochemical company has a professional services agreement with SucreSource for pilot testing of its process for chemical production. “We’re doing the front-end technology to get the sugars and they’ll work on the back end,” Klann says. That plant will be operational by December.

Publically traded companies like BlueFire keep their investors well-informed, with U.S. Securities and Exchange filings available for the public to read. Some companies have been quite aggressive in telling their stories as they seek to attract investors, while others, illustrated by World Ethanol Institute, lie low until concrete progress can be reported. “They’re all in the same place we are,” says Klann, “with a process that hasn’t been proven beyond the pilot or demo.  All work technically, but will they work economically at scale?” We’ll soon know the answer for that.  

Author: Susanne Retka Schill
Contributions Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine
(701) 738-4922
[email protected]

Project updates on Poet LLC, Enerkem Inc., Fiberight Inc., Mascoma Corp., Fulcrum BioEnergy Inc., ZeaChem Inc. and American Process Inc. are also available.