Generating Alternatives

New technologies offer producers a pathway to generating power and profits through the production of salable coproducts.
By Kris Bevill | October 14, 2010
As producers continue working to gain approval to use more of their ethanol in gasoline, technology developers are also working to create new and unique uses for the fuel. More often than not, these new technologies are in the early stages of development and are relatively untested at the commercial level. But because they are new, most developers are eager to partner with a producer to prove their technology and form strategic relationships.

One of these technology developers is Wyoming-based NDCPower. The company has developed a fuel cell that is capable of converting any primary alcohol, including ethanol, into both electric power and commodity chemicals. The company is now in the process of selecting a site to demonstrate its fuel cell technology and according to general manager Jessica Mitchell, an ethanol plant could offer the ideal location for a demonstration site. "We want to work with a partner that can benefit alongside of us, and ethanol producers make a lot of sense," she says. "For ethanol producers, we offer a pretty unique opportunity to diversify their product line. If ethanol is used as a feedstock, the salable product from the unit is acetic acid and the power that's generated can be used to power the producer's existing needs in a behind-the-meter configuration. The partner would be providing us feedstock, but they're going to be enjoying electric power and somehow sharing in the increased sales revenues from the acetic acid."

NDCPower's technology employs an electro-chemical process in a fuel cell to generate electricity and, depending on the feedstock used, various saleable chemicals. For example, ethanol produces acetic acid while methanol produces formic acid. Mitchell likens the inner workings of the fuel cell to a gigantic battery. "It operates at room temperature and pressure and there are no moving parts," she explains. "We do not combust the molecule, like you would in a traditional generator or steam turbine or similar types of technologies. We have catalysts inside the unit that drive the reaction."

The fuel cell units are modular in design, which offers a few benefits, according to Mitchell. The units are hot-swappable, so if a unit is malfunctioning it can be replaced without taking the entire system offline. Also, the 1 kilowatt modular design allows NDCPower to supply as many or as few units as required by the customer/partner. So far, the company has delivered kilowatt-sized units to its customers, which include the U.S. Department of Defense, but has yet to ramp up to a megawatt scale.

Added Benefits
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of NDCPower's technology is its ability to provide users with a commodity byproduct and eliminate CO2 emissions at the same timetwo characteristics that are otherwise unheard of in fuel cell technology. "Most fuel cells, in fact, I think it's all of them, produce only one thing and that's electric power," Mitchell says. "Our fuel cell is unique because it offers producers electric power, but the waste product also has high value." For ethanol producers, the acetic acid created in the process could fetch up to $600 per ton on the commodity market, she says. "The ethanol market is, you could say, marginal. But the acetic acid market is quite aggressive and that is because acetic acid is a key intermediary in many processes, including production of many plastics."

For producers seeking to gain a leg up on future greenhouse gas regulatory measures, NDCPower's fuel cells offer two advantages. First, because ethanol is used as the feedstock to generate electricity, it has the potential to be deemed a renewable source of energy, which could alleviate some of the pressure to comply with demands for reduced intake of fossil fuels. Second, the technology converts CO2 that would typically be emitted into the atmosphere into a chemical byproduct, virtually eliminating all CO2 emissions from the units. "If you combust ethanol, all of the carbon ends up converted to CO2 to make power, but you don't make anything else," Mitchell says. "If you instead use this kind of electro-chemical process to generate power, you do so while sequestering that carbon in the form of commodity chemicals that you then sell. You also get an advantage because turbine generators that combust really need to operate at pretty stable power delivery platforms. But our technology is what we call instant on.' When you ask it for power it delivers, and when you're done it shuts off." Mitchell says this added feature means that producers could utilize the units to level out the facility's peak power requirements.

While NDCPower's technology is fairly new, it doesn't have the "new technology" price tag that usually accompanies novel equipment systems. The final cost depends on the size of the project, but Mitchell says the back of the envelope calculation shows that the investment would be comparable to installing a turbine generator, for both capital costs and operating costs. The company was able to achieve competitive pricing because of its realistic approach to the technology, according to Mitchell. "We don't have expensive catalysts and we don't have selective membranes," she says. "The key to our ability to deliver this unique technology is our catalyst screening platform. They're very specialized catalysts that are designed with cost in mind. We recognized that platinum catalysts or rare earth metals were not realistic, so have focused our efforts on formulations that are economically viable. This allows us to field units with attractive value propositions."

Mitchell stresses that while the costs between her company's fuel cells and a traditional turbine generator may be similar, producers have the opportunity to make money back from NDCPower's technology, ultimately lowering the price paid for energy. "You get a lot better payback on your investment [by producing acetic acid] than you would by burning and just throwing away all the carbon and CO2," she says.

Aside from a ready supply of feedstock, the most important aspect of a potential NDCPower demonstration facility site will be its proximity to liquid product transportation outlets, according to Mitchell. The electrical generation equipment wouldn't necessarily have to be located within the ethanol plant, but it would require a fair amount of site space. "If we had a space that was the size of a semi-trailer, that would be three to four megawatts worth of cells," Mitchell says. "There's some holding tanks and pumps and other ancillary equipment, so we would need a space commitment, but I don't think it's egregious. Obviously, we would have to figure out how to handle the power. We're going to be generating power and we would need to get that to the appropriate point of utilization, but the nice thing about ethanol producers is they've got the liquid ground transportation problem all worked out. Whether they have rail or trucks, it makes it a nice co-location possibility. Whether we're on the same plant or just adjacent, that doesn't really matter."

The size of the ethanol plant would dictate the amount of electricity generated and acetic acid produced. Mitchell says 1 ton of ethanol will generate 1.35 tons of acetic acid and 1.4 megawatts of power. "The thing to do would be to sit down and identify what magnitude of product sales are desired and how much power the producer is currently utilizing from the grid, then try to balance that in a way that is independent and unique to each application," she says. "What makes sense for one plant may not make sense for another." EP

Kris Bevill is an associate editor at Ethanol Producer Magazine. Reach her at or (701) 850-2553.