Cellulosic commitment stays strong

By Luke Geiver | July 15, 2010
The commitment to cellulosic ethanol continues to gain ground in different ways. Royal Dutch Shell plc has reinvested in an ongoing project, Pacific Ethanol Inc. has officially started evaluating the addition of cellulosic capabilities, and Zeachem has broken ground on its Boardman, Ore., pilot and demonstration plant.

Shell announced a further investment in Iogen Energy and the Canadian company's process for making cellulosic ethanol. Iogen's Ottawa demonstration plant has produced more than 170,000 gallons of cellulosic ethanol over the past 12 months using its R7 technology. The new funding from Shell will help develop Iogen's R8 and R9 technologies, which Iogen said will significantly reduce operating costs per gallon of cellulosic ethanol. "We are extremely pleased with this additional investment from Shell, an energy leader with a 30-year history of biofuels development and investment," said Iogen CEO Brian Foody. "Iogen Energy is positioned for successful commercialization of its world class technology as we work toward meeting the demand for a low carbon transportation fuel."

Shell plans to fund the Ottawa facility through mid-2012. "Shell remains committed to addressing today's energy challenges through sustainable, advanced biofuels that take CO2 out of the transport fuels sector and diversify supply over the next 20 years," said Luis Scoffone, vice president of alternative energies at Shell. "We believe accelerating the commercialization of cellulosic ethanol will help us to achieve that goal."

Pacific Ethanol seems to agree. Through a memorandum of understanding with Lignol Energy Corp., another Canadian advanced biofuel developer, the West Coast producer will study the possibility of integrating Lignol's biorefining technology into existing corn ethanol plants. Lignol's main technology is a modified solvent-based pre-treatment that aids in the production of high purity lignins. The two companies believe the abundance of woody biomass and California's regulatory practices towards carbon emissions mean incorporating the advanced process will create added capital while reducing the carbon intensity of the ethanol. "By integrating cellulosic ethanol production into existing operations, we can lower our carbon footprint, diversify our feedstock and meet the future demand for advanced biofuels," said Neil Koehler, CEO of Pacific.

Lignol and Pacific are not the only companies looking to add a cellulosic component to an existing facility. Through a cooperative agreement, ICM Inc. will receive $25 million from the U.S. DOE to build a cellulosic demonstration and pilot facility in St. Joseph, Mo. ICM will enhance the LifeLine Foods LLC ethanol plant to produce ethanol from corn fiber, switchgrass, energy sorghum and two other high-impact cellulosic feedstocks. ICM will test pretreatment, hydrolysis and fermentation processes at the modified facility. Construction will begin in August with the expected start-up in January and full operation commencing during the fourth quarter of 2011. With $6 million of its own capital already invested in the project, Dave Vander Griend, president and CEO of ICM, said the Kansas-based company is excited to start the construction phase of the project. "DOE's funding will help our industry continue to displace imported petroleum with domestically produced fuels and help accelerate ethanol production targets."
Much further along in project development, Zeachem Inc., recently broke ground at the site of its pilot and demonstration cellulosic facility in Oregon. The 250,000 gallon per year cellulosic ethanol and ethyl acetate plant is right on schedule, even amidst tough economic times. Sticking to a plan, said Jim Imbler, president of Zeachem, is what makes or breaks a company. "The world is your oyster, but you have to decide what you're going to do without being too flashy and just execute."

The plant's location facilitates Zeachem's partnership with GreenWood Resources, a timberland investment manager. The Boardman plant will use wheat straw and other crop/waste streams while also obtaining hybrid poplars from nearby GreenWood tree farms. The construction of the demonstration biorefinery will create 292 direct and indirect Oregon jobs, 167 of which will be directly located in Boardman's own Morrow County, according to the Oregon Employment Department. Zeachem, a Colorado-based company, initially tested its processes at the Hazen Research Institute in Golden, Colo.
Both Zeachem and Pacific may be interested in work being done at the U.S. DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory. After identifying a key gene in Zymomonas mobilis, the researchers found that over-expressing that particular gene allows the microorganism to resist inhibitors that make fermentation difficult. Researchers hope to utilize that knowledge to develop a microorganism capable of more efficient conversions of woody biomass to biofuel.