Coskata unveils semi-commercial facility

By Anna Austin | November 11, 2009
Coskata Inc., along with strategic investor General Motors Corp. and plasma gasification veteran Alter NRG, officially unveiled its semi-commercial cellulosic ethanol facility near Madison, Pa., in October. Though slightly behind schedule, CEO Bill Roe insisted that "slow and steady wins the race" and he attributed the company's progress to its hybrid approach towards cellulosic ethanol—a combination of biochemical and thermochemical technologies—and the significance of it being truly feedstock flexible.

Coskata's process technology is capable of converting multiple feedstocks, including woody biomass, agricultural waste, energy crops and construction/industrial wastes, into synthesis gas. The syngas is cleaned, cooled and passed through a conversion process, during which it undergoes bacterial fermentation using Coskata's proprietary microorganisms. "They have a singular purpose, and that is to ingest CO2 and hydrogen and exhale ethanol," Roe said. "We've made them into super athletes in the course of our technology development. They perform not like they do in nature, but like we need them to in an industrial process; we've done lots of microbiological work and strain management development."

The $25 million semi-commercial plant is co-located with a pilot-plant gasifier owned and operated by Calgary, Alberta's, Alter NRG Corp, which has been perfecting its technology for several decades.
Among the many technology advancements made since the commissioning of Coskata's pilot plant in Warrenville, Ill., Roe said water consumption reduction is significant. "It's not something that gets a lot of play, but we're very interested and concerned," he said. "At our first commercial plant, we will have reduced the total water consumption to 1.3 gallons per gallon of ethanol produced, far below anything right now, and we think that's going to be a very important parameter in the future."

Now that "Project Lighthouse" is complete, Roe said a site in the southeastern U.S. has been selected for the company's first commercial-scale facility, and Coskata will soon begin working with licensee companies. "We've chosen to be a technology provider, rather than an operating company," he said.

Engineering and design for the commercial plant began in November 2008, Roe said, and a feedstock study was completed in June. "Now, we're revisiting the design work and basing it on what we're learning from the commissioning from this (Madison) facility," he said. "We'll put a final polish on the design work at the end of this year so we're ready to go to the [engineering, procurement and construction phase] in 2010, with projected start-up in late 2012."

Despite the efforts of the many companies striving for cellulosic ethanol, Roe said the U.S. will likely miss the first few renewable fuel standard targets. "We can say the goals that were put out there needed to be aggressive goals, because they were meant to spawn action," Roe said. "Also, it's partially true the credit crunch and drying up of the markets was a factor; you can't get money for projects, particularly first-of-a-kind technologies. They're not lending like they once did or will eventually, but you can't hang everything on that," he said. "A lot of us in this space have been slower to bring our technologies forward than what was originally thought or promised. Those combined—weak credit markets, slower development of the technology—form a perfect confluence of a shortage—anyone who says there won't be is dreaming."

Roe added that companies like Coskata and a few others, can fill the gap and eventually fall in line with the targets, provided they have some access to project financing. "I'm optimistic," he said. "I think the credit markets are starting to thaw and there will be financing for projects with proven technology platforms. Yes, there are hurdles to jump, but they are jumpable now and it looks a lot better to me now than it did a year ago."