Inside the Cellulosic Industry

FROM THE AUGUST ISSUE: Ethanol Producer Magazine provides an update on 10 cellulosic ethanol projects around the world striving for continuous, large-scale production.
By Susanne Retka Schill and Ann Bailey | July 26, 2017

Some things have changed in the U.S.’s cellulosic ethanol sector in the past year—two new companies have emerged to pick up cellulosic ethanol development from high-profile projects in Hugoton, Kansas, and Vero Beach, Florida. Other things seem to never change. Though several commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plants have completed construction and held grand openings, none have produced the fuel in double-digit, multi-million-gallon volumes. According to U.S. EPA data, 1.3 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol generated D3 RINs through the first four months of this year, on pace to match the 3.8 million gallons produced in all of 2016. 

While the first-of-their-kind cellulosic facilities are approaching the end of extended commissioning and full production, all are hoping the market opens up. “The most immediate challenge to cellulosic biofuels in the U.S. is the Reid vapor pressure limitations on E15 sales during the summer months,” says Jeff Pinkerman, chairman of the Poet-DSM board of directors. “Cellulosic and other advanced biofuels need to see that consumer-driven market growth in order to have the confidence to move forward with building more facilities. It’s hard to predict the rollout of cellulosic biofuels until we see that market open up.”

Jan Koninckx, global business director for biofuels at DuPont Industrial Biosciences, remains optimistic, despite the policy uncertainty. “We continue to expect that once the technology is demonstrated, the potential for substantial growth in volume rises quickly, as long as policy is consistent and implemented with confidence.” Congress enacted the Renewable Fuel Standard for good reason, he says, “to provide the policy that would incentivize companies to risk their own capital and brainpower to solve a huge problem that would benefit the country and the world.”

Both DuPont and Poet-DSM spokesmen say their companies are actively engaged in championing the RFS and related policies to keep the U.S. at the forefront of global renewable fuels production and use.

This month, Ethanol Producer Magazine compiled updates from these and other developers on their cellulosic ethanol projects. Here’s what we found.

DuPont Cellulosic Ethanol LLC
Koninckx reports the plant in Nevada, Iowa, is processing feedstock as it reaches the final stages of the commissioning process. “Early production will follow soon. In anticipation of producing and shipping commercial volumes of fuel, we’ve hired additional people at the site and we have been training them during the past several months. Additionally, we are actively exploring additional partners and potential licensees in various places in the world.”

When asked about the lengthy commissioning process—this summer marks two years since construction was completed—Koninckx says, “As with any new-to-the-world technology, there are unknowns and unexpected challenges. Throughout the commissioning process, we have uncovered elements of the plant that need to be tweaked in order to meet our safety and performance standards. As one of the world’s first cellulosic plants, we are cognizant that our plant will set industry safety and performance standards by which the next wave of cellulosic biorefineries will be built, and we fully intend to set that bar high.”

At full capacity, the 30 MMgy plant will process 375,000 dry tons of corn stover, harvested from around 190,000 acres within 30 miles of the plant. After size reduction, the biomass is pretreated using high heat and chemicals before processing with DuPont’s propriety enzymes and microorganism. The lignin coproduct is dried and used as boiler fuel.

DuPont’s agreement with Procter & Gamble to use the plant’s cellulosic ethanol to replace first-generation ethanol in Tide laundry detergent is still in place, Koninckx reports. DuPont’s merger with Dow will not affect the industrial bioscience team’s work on cellulosic ethanol, nor its work on biobutanol and other biobased chemicals, he says.

Poet-DSM Advanced Biofuels LLC—Project Liberty
Construction of an on-site enzyme manufacturing (OSM) facility is expected to start this summer at Project Liberty in Emmetsburg, Iowa—probably the best sign that the extended commissioning for the cellulosic ethanol plant is coming to a close. “We recently installed new technology in our pretreatment process and hit the 70 gallon per bone-dry ton conversion rate,” Pinkerman says. “I think the OSM announcement demonstrates our confidence in not only on-site enzyme manufacturing, but the entire package, from feedstock to pump.”

Inaugurated in a grand opening ceremony in August, 2014, Project Liberty is expected to covert 770 tons of biomass per day at full capacity to produce ethanol at a rate of 20 MMgy, ramping up to 25 MMgy. The addition of on-site enzyme manufacturing is expected to cut costs associated with downstream processing, stabilizers and other chemicals used in transport. Furthermore, new enzymes developed by DSM are expected to improve effectiveness of the enzyme mix, further reducing production costs.

The Poet-DSM process includes a new pretreatment technology developed internally after a third-party pretreatment regimen proved unsatisfactory. The pretreatment process and enzymes break down the cellulose from corn stover into fermentable sugars, which are then converted to ethanol. The waste products are separated into solids and liquids and sent to a solid-fuel boiler or anaerobic digester to produce more renewable fuel.

Alliance Bio-Products
Within the past year, IneosBio announced it was ending its cellulosic ethanol development and selling its 8 MMgy Vero Beach, Florida, facility. Alliance Bio-Products, a subsidiary of Alliance Bioenergy, stepped up to make a bid. Company Chairman Daniel de Liege says a private placement fundraising round was completed in early June, and with the required equity and debt in hand, a final bid was placed on the Florida facility. USDA approved the purchase in July. De Liege says the facility’s biomass handling and back-end ethanol distillation units will be useable, while the gasification unit will be replaced with Alliance’s cellulose-to-sugar (CTS) reactor. The facility should be operational in 2018.

Alliance began scaling up its CTS process in 2015. “What we found was the process actually got more efficient,” de Liege says. “It got easier the larger it got. The reason is it’s a mechanical process—a new chemistry—where we’re dealing with mechanical force, time and temperature.” In the mechanocatalytic process, after size reduction, biomass is fed into a reactor with a solid catalyst. The reactor is adapted from the ball mills used in the mining industry to crush and pulverize rock. The catalyst is based on common, widely available kaolinite clay. The acidic clay-based catalyst, combined with the impact forces in the ball mill, breaks down the chemical bonds in cellulosic material, releasing water to complete hydrolysis, producing simple sugars for fuels or chemicals. De Liege says 20 to 25 pounds of dry biomass will produce a gallon of ethanol.

A commercial-scale reactor was tested at Longwood, Florida. The modular design calls for three reactors in a process train—one loading, one operating and one unloading—to create a continuous process capable of handling 250 tons per day. In Florida, Alliance has a no-cost feedstock agreement in place with Indian River County for vegetative waste. In a news release announcing the private placement offering, Alliance says it expects to produce cellulosic ethanol for less than $1 per gallon, starting with 8 MMgy at Vero Beach, doubling after the first year before maximizing capacity at 34 MMgy in 2021. Early in June, the company announced Earth’s Renewable Energy LLC in Newport Beach, California, was licensing CTS technology for a planned facility in Bakersfield, California, to process almond and pistachio trees and hulls into C5/C6 sugars, with an offtake agreement with Chem-Energy Corp., which will create fine chemicals and other bioproducts.

Synata Bio Inc.
On Nov. 29, 2016, in an order signed by Judge Robert Nugent, the Kansas bankruptcy court approved Synata Bio Inc.’s $48.5 million bid for Abengoa Bioenergy Biomass in Hugoson, Kansas. Court documents say the sale included the 25 MMgy nameplate cellulosic production plant and electric cogeneration plant, and 400 acres of land. It also included furnishings, equipment, supplies, vehicles and feedstock inventory. The intellectual property contained in the process and license agreements were excluded.

Synata Bio was formed in 2015. The company’s directors have released statements saying they are working on early stage investment opportunities with True North Venture Partners. Synata Bio’s address indicates it is housed in the former headquarters of Coskata in Warrenville, Illinois, and filings indicate Synata Bio holds Coskata patents. Company executives declined to be interviewed for this article.

In spring 2016, Aemetis Inc. announced the acquisition of exclusive rights to LanzaTech’s patented technology for the conversion of agricultural, forest, dairy, construction and demolition wastes to ethanol in California. Aemetis currently has a 60 MMgy ethanol plant in California that uses about 20 million bushels per year of corn and milo from the Midwest. The LanzaTech technology will allow Aemetis to use feedstock sources closer to the plant, lowering costs, says Aemetis President and CEO Eric McAfee. Aemetis is the first licensee of the LanzaTech technology in North America. LanzaTech did not respond to interview requests for this article.



Enerkem built and installed a new ethanol unit at its facility in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and will begin producing second-generation ethanol in the coming weeks, says Pierre Boisseau, senior director of communications and marketing. Enerkem Alberta Biofuels is a commercial, single-line methanol-ethanol plant located next to the Edmonton Waste Management Center. Boisseau says the plant annually uses 100,000 metric tons of noncompostable, nonrecyclable municipal solid waste for its feedstock. The plant met all operational milestones and is certified through the International Methanol Producers and Consumers Association and the International Sustainability and Carbon Certification.

Enerkem also is in discussions with city, county and state officials for a similar plant in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Boisseau says.
Iogen Corp.
Iogen Corp. and sugarcane producer Raízen launched a $105 million advanced biofuel facility in Piracicaba, Sao Paul, Brazil, in July 2015. The 10 MMgy plant converts biogas from feedstocks such as sugar and straw into cellulosic biofuel.

The plant is the first large-scale commercial implementation of Iogen’s cellulosic ethanol technology, developed and proven at its Ottowa demonstration facility. When the plant in Piracicaba opened, Iogen said the milestone proved the commercial viability of cellulosic biofuels. Brian Foody, Iogen CEO, recently told Ethanol Producer Magazine that the company is continuing to fine-tune the overall operation of the plant. Raízen says it intends to deploy Iogen’s technology in seven more sugarcane mills.

Beta Renewables
Beta Renewables, based in Tortona, Italy, owns the Proesa technology, a process that produces biofuels and chemical intermediates from agricultural wastes and nonfood feedstocks. Beta Renewables manages a second-generation 13 MMgy cellulosic ethanol plant in Crescentino, Italy. Feedstocks for Proesa installations are based on local characteristics of the projects being developed, according to the company. Beta Renewables’ media spokesperson did not respond to requests for information from Ethanol Producer Magazine for this article.

Prospects for a cellulosic ethanol plant to be built as part of the Maabjerg Energy Center in Denmark had a breakthrough investment this spring, says Jorgen Udby, Inbicon’s board chairman. Inbicon, owned by Dong Energy, has a lignocellulose biomass conversion technology. The project, announced several years ago, would build a cellulosic ethanol plant alongside a biogas plant and biomass-fired cogeneration plant.

London-based investment firm Pioneer Point Partners confirmed in a letter of intent this past spring it was ready to invest up to 160 million euro in the plant. But Pioneer Point Partners specified that the political framework and long-term government support must first be settled, according to the company news release. MEC received 39 million euro in funding from the European Commission’s NER300 program in 2014, but two years later the project was put on hold “as a consequence of not being able to find a political majority that would support the idea of providing public guarantees for the investment,” according to MEC.

Plans are for annual production of 80 million gallons of ethanol, 50 million cubic meters of biogas, and electricity and district heat production capable of serving 25,000 households. MEC will process 300,000 tons of straw, 800,000 tons of biomass for biogas and 100,000 tons of waste. 

Praj has a second-generation ethanol technology that features a biochemical process using thermal pretreatment, followed by enzymatic hydrolysis. The company inaugurated its integrated biorefinery demonstration plant for renewable fuels near Pune, India, in May. It is India’s first integrated biorefinery demonstration plant and produces 1 million liters of ethanol annually.

Ravinda Utgikar, Praj spokesman, says more work is underway to add other renewable fuels and chemicals to the company’s products.

Praj has signed memorandums of understanding to serve as a technology partner to oil marketing companies IOCL and BPCL.

India blends 4 percent ethanol derived from sugarcane molasses, which is considered first-generation ethanol in India, Utgikar notes. The government is poised to set up second-generation plants to achieve the target of 20 percent blending by 2022.

Author: Susanne Retka Schill
Freelance Journalist

Coauthor: Ann Bailey
Freelance Journalist