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Big steps for biorefineries

Cellulosic ethanol is getting closer to commercialization. How close? Just one to three years. Buoyed by federal funding, technological advancements, and their own considerable investments, a few companies are moving forward with commercial-scale plans.


In September, POET, Sioux Falls, SD, announced a $6.85-million funding increase to an existing grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). This, plus an additional $13.15 million expected next year, will help POET develop corncob feedstock infrastructure around its Project Liberty plant.

Design work has begun for this 25-million-gallon-per-year cellulosic ethanol facility, which will be attached to POET's existing corn ethanol plant in Emmetsburg, IA. POET has applied to the DOE for a federal loan guarantee to help finance the project.

The company expects to begin commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol production before the end of 2011.

POET already has been producing cellulosic ethanol at a pilot-scale facility in Scotland, SD. This plant (which has received no federal or state funding) began production in November 2008 and has run 24/7 since January 2009. The facility has been teaching the company how to confidently scale up to commercial production, reducing costs along the way, says Jim Sturdevant, director of POET's Project Liberty.

With the recent DOE grant money, POET will work with several equipment manufacturers to get cob-harvesting technology into fields around Emmetsburg. Fourteen area farmers tested prototype equipment this fall. POET is developing and testing cob pickup, delivery and storage.

“Cobs represent a whole new revenue stream for farmers without them having to buy more land or dramatically change production. They just need to add some equipment,” Sturdevant says.

Some of the new cob-harvesting equipment, such as the CCX770 cob harvester offered by Vermeer Corporation, Pella, IA, is now available.


Warrenville, IL-based Coskata also has taken a major step forward with the recent launch of its semi-commercial (demonstration) ethanol facility in Madison, PA. The facility will produce ethanol from woody biomass, agricultural waste, energy crops and construction waste.

This flexible approach is enabled by Westinghouse Plasma Corporation and its plasma gasification technology and Coskata's syngas-to-biofuels conversion process. Coskata plans to license its technology to other companies that will build cellulosic ethanol facilities with capacities of 50-million gallons and 100-million gallons per year.

DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol

By the end of this year, DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol (DDCE) expects to begin producing cellulosic ethanol at its 250,000-gallon demonstration biorefinery in Vonore, TN. DDCE is a 50/50 joint venture formed in 2008 by DuPont and Danisco A/S.

The parent companies have committed $70 million each to the joint venture, which began in May 2008, explains Vonnie Estes, vice president of commercial development, DDCE. Part of this $140-million total was designated for construction of the demonstration project. The State of Tennessee also has committed $40.7 million to construction of the biorefinery.

DDCE tested its technology at pilot scale at both DuPont in Delaware and at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, CO. There the company tested unit operations — pretreatment, enzyme saccharification and fermentation — which are all ready to scale up.

The Tennessee demonstration plant will produce cellulosic ethanol from corncobs for about a year and then convert to switchgrass. It will have the capability to process other feedstocks if those sources make economic sense.

DDCE will take what it learns from the demonstration plant and apply it to a commercial-scale facility, which it plans to build in the Midwest. This facility will be located with a corn ethanol plant. DDCE plans to select the site by the end of this year and expects it to be operational in 2012. The new facility, which be run on corncobs, will be capable of producing 25 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol per year.

DDCE also plans to build a commercial plant in Tennessee, which will produce 15 million gallons of ethanol per year from switchgrass. About 25,000 to 30,000 acres of switchgrass will be needed to supply the plant.

The future success of cellulosic ethanol depends on the ability of farmers to provide feedstocks, Estes says. Although the demonstration project will use corncobs at first to obtain data for the Midwest plant, switchgrass makes more economic sense in Tennessee. A commercial-scale biorefinery using switchgrass will create new markets for area farmers. Such a facility also will help create a new industry with new jobs, which will be welcome to a state that currently suffers from an 11% unemployment rate.

Range Fuels

Commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol production will begin soon at the Range Fuels facility in Soperton, GA. Construction is currently 50% complete, and production is expected to begin by next year's second quarter.

The new facility will initially use woody biomass as a feedstock since Soperton, known as “Million Pines City,” has an abundant supply of pine trees. According to David Aldous, the company's CEO, the biorefinery will require about 125 tons of biomass per day to produce almost 10 million gallons of cellulosic biofuels per year. It also will produce cellulosic methanol for biodiesel.

As the biorefinery scales up to 100 million gallons per year, it will require 2,625 dry tons of biomass annually.

At the Soperton site, Range Fuels has 281 acres in plots to test potential feedstocks, including jatropha, switchgrass and slash pines. “We'll also look at the possibility of using municipal solid waste,” Aldous says.

Verenium Corporation-BP

Verenium Corporation, Cambridge, MA, and BP, the international energy company, formed a 50/50 joint venture in 2008 and plan to build a 36-million-gallon-per-year cellulosic ethanol facility in Highlands County, FL.

The experience gained from Verenium's 1.4-million-gallon-per-year demonstration-scale plant in Jennings, LA, will help the joint venture scale up. The Louisiana plant will eventually process about 50 tons per day of sugarcane bagasse and energy cane.

The DOE has selected the Verenium and BP joint venture, Vercipia Biofuels, to negotiate a loan guarantee. The joint venture is currently gathering data for due diligence and expects to close on the loan in the first half of 2010.

Pending the loan approval, it will then take about 18 months to complete construction of the new biorefinery. The Florida facility could begin producing cellulosic ethanol in 2012.

Government funding

Jim Sturdevant, director of POET's Project Liberty, says it is critical that government provide both financial support and policies that support development of alternative biofuels. Because we have relied on conventional oil for more than 100 years, the alternative fuels industry is still new and needs government help to get it started. One of the ways government can help is to allow 15% ethanol blends in gasoline, because this will create a continued market for ethanol, Sturdevant says.

“The industry must demonstrate long-term profitability,” he says, adding that the industry must eventually replicate its technology without government funding.

To date, much of the government funding has been for research and development. The funding needed now is for scale-up and commercialization. Fortunately, the Department of Energy has recognized the importance of this, says Vonnie Estes of DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol.

Both the Obama and Bush administrations have talked about the importance of reducing America's dependence on foreign oil, reducing our carbon footprint and creating new green industry jobs. Cellulosic ethanol can help the country achieve these goals.

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