AE Biofuels opens Montana demo plant

By Kris Bevill | August 04, 2008
Web exclusive posted August 13, 2008 at 4:07 p.m. CST

California-based AE Biofuels Inc. officially opened its first demonstration-scale cellulosic ethanol production facility in Butte, Mont., on Aug. 11. The $1.5 million, 9,000-square-foot facility is capable of producing 150,000 gallons of ethanol per year and will be used to perfect the company's integrated cellulosic ethanol production process.

Rory Mackin, spokesman for AE Biofuels, said the plant houses microbiology and analytic laboratory facilities, in addition to production units. The possible addition of extra fermentation tanks and distillation units in the future would allow production capacity to be expanded to 1.2 MMgy, but the goal now is "to optimize the operating parameters for delignification and fermentation for various feedstocks, as well as optimize enzyme activity for those specific feedstocks," he said.

The plant will employ AE Biofuels' patent-pending process to produce ethanol from either cellulose or a combination of cellulose and starch. The process utilizes ambient temperature enzymes to eliminate the "cooking" process, commonly used as a first step in traditional starch-to-ethanol applications, and thus lowers the plant's demand for energy and water. The process will allow the Butte facility to use a variety of feedstocks including switchgrass, grass seed straw, small grain straw, sugarcane bagasse and corn stover. Such non-food feedstocks can be used alone or in combination with other traditional feedstocks, such as corn and sugarcane.

Feedstocks for the plant are being obtained from local farmers, with the exception of sugarcane bagasse which is being shipped to the plant from India and Brazil. Because Montana is not a major corn growing area, corn stover will be supplied from other areas of the Midwest.

AE Biofuel's president and chief operations officer Andy Foster said Montana was selected for the company's first demonstration facility because the facility's technology was originally developed there and "the expertise resides there."

"We believe the powerful combination of our ambient temperature enzyme technology, access to multiple feedstocks, and reduced energy and water consumption place us at the very leading edge of next-generation ethanol," Foster said. "Combined with our biodiesel production, AE Biofuels is well positioned to lead the vertical integration of the biofuels industry."

Attendees at the grand opening event included Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, and Paul Dickerson, chief operating officer at the U.S. DOE's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

Baucus said the Butte plant is a "step in the right direction" towards Montana's role in lessening the country's dependence on foreign oil. "I'm especially proud that Montana can help pave the way and be a leader in boosting domestic energy production," he said.

Dickerson reiterated the DOE's commitment to developing clean, renewable, sustainable biofuels. He said a wide range of technologies is needed to address the nation's energy challenges.

According to Foster, the company is planning to name a location for its first commercial-scale facility in mid-2009. Once the process is perfected at the Butte facility, AE Biofuels plans to use it to build and operate its own commercial-scale plants, as well as market the technology to other corn-ethanol producers.