Coskata moves forward on U.S., international projects

By Hope Deutscher | April 14, 2009
Web exclusive posted April 15, 2009, at 1:32 p.m. CST

Illinois-based next-generation biofuels technology developer Coskata Inc. is moving forward with a number of potential opportunities in the southeastern U.S. and overseas.

According to Wes Bolsen, chief marketing officer and vice president of business development for Coskata, the company is progressing with plans to develop a 100 MMgy cellulosic ethanol plant in Clewiston, Fla., which would annually convert 1 million tons of sugarcane waste and bagasse into ethanol. The estimated $400 million facility could begin production in 2012, pending USDA loan guarantees and a grant from the Florida Energy Office.

Negotiations between Coskata and U.S. Sugar are pending until the sugar company signs a land sale and use agreement with the state of Florida. In early April, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist announced a revised proposal to buy 72,500 acres from U.S. Sugar for $530 million in an effort to restore the Everglades. The proposal is less than half of what was initially proposed in June 2008. That proposal called for 181,000 acres to be purchased at a price of $1.34 billion.

Bolsen said the reduced acreage makes the U.S. Sugar and Coskata partnership even stronger. "There was a lot of worry about would there be enough acres for growing sugarcane to utilize in that 100 million gallon per year plant," he said. With the reduced acreage being turned over to the state, Bolsen added, it allows south Florida agriculture to continue farming the land, growing citrus and sugarcane, and operating the mill. In addition, it helps with restoration of the Florida Everglades and provides potential feedstock for a cellulosic biofuels facility.

Bolsen is hopeful that a deal between the state of Florida and U.S. Sugar will be signed by a September deadline. "We need to start putting steel in the ground and it takes a deal closing so that U.S. Sugar can know what they have to move forward," he said. "Coskata is really willing to step in and start as soon as the closing can come together."

Coskata is commercializing a proprietary conversion process and related technologies to convert a variety of input materials into ethanol. The three-step conversion process includes: converting incoming material into syngas; fermenting the syngas into ethanol; and separating and recovering ethanol. The company continues to operate a pilot-scale plant in Warrenville, Ill., a semi-commercial facility in Pittsburgh is expected to go on-line in the next few weeks and Bolsen said Coskata is working with partners to build a 50 MMgy wood biomass facility in the southeast United States.

Meanwhile, Bolsen recently visited Australia and Thailand to discuss Coskata's technology.

In Australia, he met with officials from the Australian government and GM Holden Ltd., a division of Coskata's U.S. partner General Motors Corp., to discuss a potential project.

The government of Thailand is investing billions of dollars in renewable energy and is interested in becoming a hub to distribute ethanol within Southeast Asia, especially due to ethanol mandates in Japan. "There's a need for where that ethanol is coming from and Thailand has the ability to grow a significant amount of biomass," Bolsen said. "Therefore, it has the ability to also be a major producer of ethanol using Coskata's flexible-feedstock technology." From leftover sugarcane molasses, new energy crops, to wheat straw, municipal and agricultural waste, Bolsen said Coskata's technology is feedstock flexible.

Just from existing feedstock sources currently available in China, Bolsen sees a potential for 50 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol production.

"What it takes is a committed partner, a company who wants to own and operate the facility," he said. Coskata plans to continue talks with officials in Australia and Thailand to find feedstock and financing commitments.