Verenium opens cellulosic ethanol demo plant

By Kris Bevill | July 08, 2008
Cambridge, Mass.-based Verenium Corp. hosted the grand opening of its 1.4 MMgy demonstration-scale cellulosic ethanol plant May 29 in Jennings, La. Approximately 100 people attended the event, including industry professionals, local and state government officials, U.S. DOE representatives, and local farmers. Attendees heard from several speakers and toured the facility, which had just begun transferring sugarcane bagasse into the plant for its commissioning phase.

Verenium President and Chief Executive Officer Carlos Riva said the event was a "truly momentous" occasion 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.

Verenium's plan, according to Riva, is to validate its technology during the commissioning phase 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 facilitiesall operating between 30 MMgy and 60 MMgy.

Sugarcane and energy cane bagasse are the feedstocks currently being used at the demonstration facility. At the grand opening, there were 9,000 pounds of bagasse ready to be fed into the plant. Local sugar cooperative Cajun Sugar Co-op is providing Verenium with all of its feedstock supply. Cooperative member and lifelong farmer Joe Judice told EPM that he expects Verenium's plant to help the local sugar growers at a time when the industry is struggling. He is one of several area farmers who have been experimenting with energy cane, at Verenium's request, and said he hopes it works well for the company because it's easy and cheaper for the farmer to grow.

According to Verenium, experimentation is also being done on sorghum and switchgrass to potentially diversify the company's feedstock choices. Verenium would also like to use wood chips but will perfect its bagasse technique before moving on to other options.

Verenium's advantage so far in the cellulosic ethanol industry has been the end-to-end capabilities the company possesses, including the ability to produce its own enzymes. The demonstration facility includes a lab on the third floor of the plant that will allow scientists to work in real time with enzymes being used at the plant. However, Riva cautioned that much more work still needs to be done to advance cellulosic ethanol. "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.