Making Cellulosic Ethanol a Reality

By Susanne Retka Schill | October 05, 2012

Whether preparing to break ground, actively constructing a new facility or already producing cellulosic ethanol, these companies are making progress toward the same ultimate goal—commercialization.

Poet LLC has focused much attention on feedstock handling and logistics research and has begun stockpiling bales of corn stover in the feedstock yard at Emmetsburg, Iowa. Construction has started at the 20 MMgy Poet-DSM Advanced Biofuels LLC, with the foundation and ring walls being installed in the fermentation area and work on the biomass building about to begin in September.

ZeaChem Inc. has used a phased approach to the construction of its planned 25 MMgy plant at Boardman, Ore. Its demonstration plant came online in January, with the core facility fermenting sugars into acetic acid and ethyl acetate. Jim Imbler, president and CEO, reports construction of the ethanol conversion unit is nearly complete. “ZeaChem is on schedule to begin cellulosic ethanol production at the demonstration plant by the end of the year.” A further expansion will enable conversion to biobased jet and diesel fuels. GreenWood Resources received a Biomass Crop Assistance Program award to establish 7,000 acres of intercropped poplars on their existing plantation to supply ZeaChem’s commercial biorefinery.

Enerkem Inc. began ethanol production from municipal solid waste (MSW) at its 1.3 MMgy demonstration facility in Westbury, Quebec, in June. “We’re very happy with the results we’re getting from our different test campaigns to confirm our process design before we actually deploy the full design in our full scale plants,” says Marie-Helene Labrie, vice president government affairs and communications. Construction continues on its first commercial-scale 10 MMgy plant in Edmonton, Alberta. The feedstock receiving buildings are completed and conveyers installed. Cement has been poured and key process equipment was being delivered in September.  The company’s pilot plant has been operating since 2003, producing syngas and converting to methanol and ethanol. “The key in our process is to achieve the quality and stability of syngas—chemical grade syngas—from mixed materials,” she adds.

Another project planning to use MSW is Fiberight LLC, which received a key approval from the U.S. EPA this summer for its MSW handling process, and is now completing a $20 million expansion of its demonstration facility in Lawrenceville, Va., to 1 MMgy. Fiberight began exploring the feasibility of biochemical conversion of MSW to fermentable sugar with Novozymes in 2009, and developed a formal partnership in 2010. “Since work began, Novozymes enzyme technology has enabled Fiberight to reduce enzyme dosing by 80 percent and increase glucose conversion by 50 percent,” CEO Craig Stuart-Paul says. In the post-Solyndra era, the USDA is requiring more proof of process, he explains. Once its process has been successfully demonstrated, the company expects to receive a USDA loan guarantee and begin work on retrofitting its corn ethanol plant in Blairstown, Iowa, to produce 6 MMgy. 

Fulcrum BioEnergy Inc. received a $105 million conditional loan guarantee from the USDA, putting its planned 10 MMgy Sierra BioFuels Plant closer to groundbreaking near Reno, Nev. “It will be early next year before we break ground, and 18 months after that before we’re ready to commercially produce ethanol,” says Rick Barraza, vice president of administration. The property has been acquired, the necessary permits are in place, and Fluor Corp., the EPC contractor, has completed the engineering plan. Fulcrum advanced to the final application stage for the USDA loan guarantee in November, 2010, about a year after it announced the successful demonstration of the conversion of post-sorted MSW to syngas and the catalytic conversion to ethanol.           

Mascoma Corp. is still in a quiet period as they seek new investors but provided a statement regarding the status of its planned 20 MMgy Frontier Renewable Resources Inc. hardwood-to-ethanol plant. The company’s consolidated bioprocessing process utilizes engineered microorganisms that produce enzymes and convert biomass sugars to ethanol in a single reactor. “Contractor bids for the Kinross, Mich., facility have been received and Mascoma is currently reviewing these bids and conducting final engineering design work,” the company said. “Mascoma plans to initiate construction activities by year-end 2012, shortly after the engineering design work is completed, the bids are awarded and the financing finalized.”

American Process Inc. brought Alpena Biorefinery online this summer, co-located with the Decorative Panels International Inc.’s hardboard manufacturing facility in Alpena, Mich. The company is utilizing a waste stream of wood hydrolyzate, a woody biomass extract from the mixed northern hardwood used by DPI. The Alpena plant produces 800,000 gallons of cellulosic ethanol, using fermentation and distillation, and a similar amount of potassium acetate, handled in a second process flow from the evaporator into a reactor followed by reverse osmosis, according to descriptions of the process on the company website. American Process is an engineering company serving the pulp and paper industry. The Alpena Biorefinery demonstrates its business model of adding cellulosic ethanol production to wood processing facilities, biopower plants and pulp mills.

The main story, Milestones Reached, includes more information about cellulosic ethanol projects. 

—Sue Retka Schill