Cellulosic ethanol projects move forward

By Holly Jessen | May 21, 2010
The end of April was a busy time for cellulosic ethanol news. Poet LLC, Verenium Corp., Woodland Biofuels Inc., Amyris Biotechnologies Inc., Codexis Inc. and ZeaChem Inc. all made the news within the space of a week.

Poet talked about its goals for producing 3.5 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol by 2022—20 percent of the cellulosic ethanol mandated in the renewable fuels standard. The company plans to nearly double its ethanol production at its 26 plants by co-locating them with cellulosic ethanol production using corn stover. "Our model that co-locates grain and cellulose plants takes biomass from the same acres and gets us to the commercialization of cellulosic ethanol faster," said Jeff Broin, CEO. In addition, Poet will license the technology to other corn ethanol plants and produce cellulosic ethanol from other feedstocks, either by Poet or through joint ventures. Pending U.S. DOE loan approval, the company's first commercial cellulosic ethanol plant will be co-located with Poet's corn-to-ethanol plant located in Emmetsburg, Iowa. Called Project Liberty, the 25 MMgy plant will produce ethanol from corn cobs.

A day later, Verenium announced that it had been awarded an additional $4.9 million from the DOE. The funding will be used to support on-going cellulosic technology and process optimization at its demonstration-scale facility in Jennings, La. The funding is an extension of a grant awarded to the company in July of 2008. Previously, the company said a joint development program with partner BP plc was extended an additional four months. Through the extension period, Verenium will receive $2.5 million per month from BP to co-fund the cellulosic ethanol program.

Over the Canadian border, Woodland Biofuels was gearing up to begin construction on a cellulosic ethanol demonstration plant using its patented gasification technology. That company received $4 million through Ontario's Innovation Demonstration Fund. The plant will be built over a 15-month period at the Bioindustrial Innovation Centre, in the University of Western Ontario's Sarnia-Lambton Research Park. It is expected to have a capacity of 750,000 liters (roughly 200,000 gallons) of ethanol annually. Woodland has developed a patented process trademarked as Catalyzed Pressure Reduction—a process that gasifies a wide range of waste feedstocks with the resulting biogas reformed via catalyzed chemical reactions and distillation to produce a range of outputs including ethanol. The process can also be configured to produce hydrogen, methanol or chemicals such as vinyl acetate, acetic acid and formaldehyde. The standard commercial plant design will produce a little over 20 MMgy of ethanol annually, said Greg Nuttall, president and CEO of Woodland.

Other companies are hoping going public will do the trick. Amyris Biotechnologies and Codexis, two California-based companies, both filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission for an initial public offering (IPO) of common stock. Amyris, which is focusing its initial efforts on ethanol from Brazilian sugarcane, hopes to raise $100 million and Codexis, which is working with cellulosic ethanol maker Iogen Corp., wants to bring in about $85.3 million. Amyris works with genetically modified microorganisms, primarily yeast, for the fermentation process. The plan is to build "bolt on" ethanol facilities to co-locate at existing sugar mills in Brazil, rather than building new ethanol facilities, according to the SEC filling from April 16. A 5,000 liter demonstration facility was established by Amyris in Brazil last fall. This is the second try at going public for Codexis, which withdrew a first attempt in 2008. Codexis has an agreement with Shell to work with Iogen on enhancing the efficiency of the biocatalysts used in Iogen's cellulosic ethanol production process. In addition, Codexis has worked with Shell on research in the U.S. and Hungary on biocatalysts for converting biomass directly into biofuels.

Lakewood, Colo.-based ZeaChem announced that it had successfully produced commercial grade ethyl acetate—reaching another milestone on the way to producing cellulosic ethanol. Ethyl acetate can be sold to chemical manufacturers or, through hydrogenation, converted into ethanol. "These results demonstrate ZeaChem's ability to produce another valuable bio-based intermediate chemical on the road toward cellulosic ethanol production," said Jim Imbler, president and CEO. The company said it would soon start building its 250,000 gallon-per-year demonstration scale cellulosic biorefinery in Boardman, Ore. It expects the plant to come online this year, initially producing ethyl acetate. Using a $25 million U.S. DOE grant ZeaChem received in December, the company will ramp up to cellulosic ethanol production.