Connecticut start-up banks on low-cost wood

By Erin Voegele | October 06, 2009
The projected high per-gallon cost of many cellulosic ethanol technologies has been a primary factor impeding further development of the industry. To remain competitive in the marketplace, cellulosic ethanol companies must be able to produce ethanol at or below the cost of gasoline.

Connecticut-based American Energy Enterprises Inc. has developed a cellulosic ethanol process that is expected to achieve this benchmark. The company is developing a facility that will utilize waste wood and is expected to produce ethanol at between 80 cents to 85 cents per gallon.

The project was launched several years ago, but experienced some delays that can be attributed to the current economic crisis. The company is currently awaiting approval of a $50 million U.S. DOE grant. According to Christopher Brown, American Energy Enterprises' chairman, the agency is expected to award recipients funds during November and December.

Brown estimates that American Energy Enterprises' facility could break ground as early as October and be operational by mid-2010. While the facility will eventually have a production capacity of 80 MMgy to 100 MMgy, it will be constructed in a modular format and feature up to 10 trains of production. Each train will be able to produce approximately 8 MMgy to 10 MMgy of ethanol. The facility's first train of production is expected to be operational by August 2010. Brown said nine additional trains would be added at a rate of one per month.

Once operational, the facility will utilize feedstocks that are indigenous to the New England region, including waste hard and soft woods that are currently disposed of in landfills. Brown said feedstock procurement is a primary factor in the ability to produce low cost cellulosic ethanol, and pointed out waste wood disposal fees at local landfills currently cost companies between $17 per yard and $20 per yard. "Having that material brought to us with low cost helps [maintain] low upfront [expenses]," Brown said. In addition, he continued, the company's dilute acid hydrolysis process also features low overhead costs. While it will primarily employ waste wood as feedstock, Brown said his company is also working with local farmers to revitalize former farmland and use it to grow energy crops, such as miscanthus and switchgrass, which could also be used as feedstock in the future.

The company is in the process of licensing yeast developed by Purdue University researcher Nancy Ho. According to Brown, the yeast licensed from Purdue is expected to dramatically increase ethanol yields. While the use of other yeast strains would allow the company to produce 30 gallons to 50 gallons of ethanol per ton of feedstock, Purdue's yeast are expected to produce between 80 gallons and 100 gallons of ethanol per ton of feedstock. The high yields achieved through the use of Purdue's yeast will further help to reduce the per-gallon cost of American Energy Enterprises' ethanol.

Various off-take agreements for the company's byproducts are also expected to add to the company's bottom line. According to Brown, off-take agreements have already been formed to sell the facility's carbon dioxide, furfural and gypsum byproducts. In addition, the facility will feature a 65 megawatt cogeneration system that will be powered by the facility's lignin byproduct. Additional waste materials produced by the plant will be used to produce a clean fertilizer that will be donated back to the farmers who supply energy crop feedstocks to the company.

In addition to developing cellulosic ethanol production facilities, Brown said American Energy Enterprises also plans to help bring additional E85 availability to New England. In the future, the company expects to explore the possibility of producing ethanol-blended home heating oil. Brown said he intends for his company's cellulosic ethanol production facility to serve as a research center, offering student interns real-world experience in biomass processing and major universities a facility to apply the biomass technologies they develop.