Mascoma cellulosic ethanol pilot plant on line

By Anna Austin | April 14, 2009
Boston, Mass.-based cellulosic ethanol developer Mascoma Corp. has commenced operations at its demonstration facility in Rome, N.Y., and is now producing cellulosic ethanol at the site. The company reached the milestone just four years after being founded.

Plans to construct the pilot plant were first made public in 2006, construction began in early 2008, and completion of the facility was achieved the following December. On behalf of the state, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and the New York Power Authority provided partial funding for the facility, an agreement that was made in December 2006. Research partners at the pilot facility include State University of New York-College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Cornell University and Clarkson University.

The newly completed Rome facility has the flexibility to operate on a variety of feedstocks, as Mascoma's Consolidated Bio-Processing technology is able to convert multiple nonfood biomass feedstocks into cellulosic ethanol through the use of its process, which eliminates the need for costly enzymes or additives.

The company also has research and development labs in Lebanon, N.H., and Woburn, Mass.

Mascoma spokeswoman Kate Casolaro said that over the years, the company will use a combination of feedstocks while exploring different possibilities for its commercial facility five to 10 years down the line. "As we are focusing on wood chips for our first commercial facility in Michigan, in New York we'll initially be testing wood chips, but we will be using switchgrass, corn stover and sugarcane bagasse at various points in our process testing," she said.

In early October, Mascoma received a $23.5 million grant from the state of Michigan to build a 40 MMgy commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol facility in Kinross Township, Mich., which is expected to be completed between 2011 and 2012.

Mascoma has partnered with local businesses to obtain feedstock supplies for the pilot-scale New York plant, and is currently purchasing wood chips from a local saw mill.

Having actually begun producing ethanol at the end of February, Casolaro says the facility is still running smoothly. Although the capacity of the facility is 200,000 gallons, its output will fluctuate, according to Casolaro. "The fuel produced will be used for testing, and we will send some over to General Motors [Corp.] to test it in their engines," she said. "We will hold some small events at which we will showcase GM cars running on the fuel."

In May, GM announced it had provided an undisclosed monetary investment to Mascoma and completed an agreement with the company to evaluate materials and other fuels produced by Mascoma for engine applications. The two companies also announced they would collaborate on expanding Mascoma's commercialization projects on a global level. In a December 2008 interview with EPM, Mascoma Chief Executive Officer Bruce Jamerson said GM's current financial crisis is not having an effect on Mascoma, and that they will continue to be investors no matter what happens in the future.

"At some point, if we end up producing a lot of ethanol [at the pilot plant], we may blend and sell it," Casolaro said. "But primarily, it will be used for testing and demonstration to ensure that we can continue to improve our technology by refining the numerous variables that will make this the most efficient, low-cost, low-carbon process possible."