Verenium's cellulosic ethanol demonstration plant opens

By Kris Bevill | May 09, 2008
Web exclusive posted May 30, 2008 at 4:15 p.m. CST

The nation's movement toward energy independence celebrated a milestone Thursday at a low-key event in Jennings, La.

Cambridge, Mass.-based Verenium Corp. hosted the grand opening of its 1.4 MMgy demonstration-scale cellulosic ethanol plant. Approximately 100 people attended the event, including industry professionals, local and state government officials, U.S. Department of Energy representatives, and local farmers. Attendees heard from several speakers and toured the facility, which last week began transferring sugarcane bagasse into the plant for its commissioning phase.

Verenium President and Chief Executive Officer Carlos Riva said the event is "truly momentous" not just for the company but for the entire cellulosic ethanol industry. "We look forward to realizing the vision of making cellulosic ethanol a reality," he said, adding that now is an "exciting and challenging time to be pursuing next-generation ethanol."

Verenium's plan, according to Riva, is to validate its technology during the commission phase at the demonstration plant before moving immediately into the construction of its first commercial-scale facility. Riva said commercial sites are being developed in Texas, Louisiana and Florida. It's possible the first commercial plant could be colocated with the demonstration facility, but other sites will also be considered because Verenium plans to construct a "fleet" of commercial-scale facilities - all operating at between 30 and 60 MMgy.

Sugarcane and energy cane bagasse are the feedstocks currently being used at the demonstration facility. According to Verenium, experimentation work is being done on sorghum and switchgrass to potentially diversify Verenium's feedstock choices. The company would also like to use wood chips, but will perfect its bagasse technique before moving on to other options.

Verenium's advantage so far has been the end-to-end capabilities the company possesses, including the ability to produce its own enzymes on-site. However, Riva cautioned that much more work still needs to be done, including perfecting the company's production process. "We (the industry) also need to focus on the agronomics of crop production, the economics of collecting, transporting and storing large quantities of biomass and the transportation, storage, blending and marketing of the fuel itself," he said. Riva compared those challenges to the hurdles faced by developers of the Apollo and Interstate highway projects and said it will require a nationwide mobilization to be successful.

Because of the complex challenges being faced by the cellulosic ethanol industry, Riva announced the company is actively seeking partners to work to achieve solutions. "We believe a partnership model is essential in order to take advantage of this new opportunity," he said. "The teams that truly understand and are the first to solve these complex challenges stand to reap very significant rewards."

Louisiana State Director of Rural Development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Clyde Holloway, spoke at the event on behalf of U.S. President George W. Bush and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer. "There is nothing that is more important today for rural America than renewable fuels. It's going to bring life back to rural America," he said.

Holloway said the USDA Rural Development Department is the lead government agency on renewable fuels. "We're ready to go out and make guaranteed loans for companies once we get it [cellulosic ethanol] commercial and I think you [Verenium] are going to have it commercial a lot quicker than anyone else in the country," he said, adding that commercial-scale production of cellulosic ethanol is the key to the government moving to heavily fund the industry.

Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association, also spoke at the event. He was quick to point out the importance of the plant's opening and said it is a "tremendous accomplishment" for the industry.

Dinneen spoke on the concerns of some that the ethanol industry has grown too fast. He recommends that rather than slow down, the industry needs to accelerate its growth - but in ways that make the most economic and environmental sense. "That's why this plant is so important," he said. "This is the future. We're going to learn so much. Verenium is going to learn so much from this plant. We're going to be able to expand ethanol production way beyond where we are today. I have no doubt that the nation can satisfy the growing demand of ethanol in the near term. But if we are going to meet the 36 billion gallons required by law [in 2022], this facility is going to lead the way. It's going to show the nation that we can do it."

Dinneen's comments ended with a comparison of oil prices between the ground breaking of Verenium's demonstration plant in February 2007 and the grand opening. A barrel of oil cost $60 then and has skyrocketed to $130 per barrel in the time it took to construct Verenium's facility. "If that doesn't speak volumes for the need not just to learn from this plant but to expand our production of domestic renewable fuels and move beyond what we're able to do from grain…we have to have cellulosic ethanol," Dinneen said.