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Beta Renewables CEO declares cellulosic ethanol now ready

By Susanne Retka Schill | March 05, 2013

Interest in the Beta Renewables SpA commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant undergoing commissioning in Crescentino, Italy, has been high. “I was surprised,” said Guido Ghisolfi, CEO. “I expected perhaps 10 groups a month would be interested in seeing the facility, but it has been 10 a week. And it hasn’t been just journalists and consultants, but heads of industrial companies from five continents.”

Ghisolfi will be speaking at the World Biofuels Markets Congress being held March 12-14 in Rotterdam. He says he will bring the attendees up to date on the 13 MMgy Crescentino project, and hopes to dispel the notion that the infant cellulosic ethanol industry is struggling, but rather demonstrate that it is poised to take off.

For a long time, detractors said the second generation of biofuels production would never happen because the technology wasn’t there, Ghisolfi said, and if it were, the cost would be too high. The technology is being deployed now, and the first-of-the-kind plants are coming online. The enzyme providers are able to give cost guarantees and with the first plants finally built, the builders such as Chemtex International Inc. or Fagen Inc. will be able to put firm price tags on the next ones, he said. Concerns about the availability of biomass are being answered by the growing emphasis on multifeedstock technologies. “One by one we are peeling down the risk level,” Ghisolfi told Ethanol Producer Magazine. Now that there is steel in the ground and a plant and a process that can be seen, interested companies and their financiers are willing to deal. He expects the company will exceed its goal of selling 10 plants this year and 20 more next year.

While there is vocal opposition to biofuels in both Europe and North America, Ghisolfi pointed out that when Mossi & Ghisolfi Group decided to invest $250 million in research and development on second-generation biofuels, it was not done with any expectation of continued subsidies. “The fuel is competitive. People will buy it because it is cheaper.” Regardless of subsidies or policy support, he added, “Ethanol and biofuels are here to stay.”

Ghisolfi leads a suite of companies owned by Mossi & Ghisolfi, a $3 billion per year chemical firm that ranks as one of the world’s largest PET producers (a polymer used in plastics bottles and multiple other products.) Chemtex is its wholly-owned global engineering, procurement and construction company and cellulosic technology company Beta Renewables is a joint venture between M&G and TPG Capital and TPG Biotech. Danish enzyme-maker, Novozymes SA joined the venture in October, investing $115 million in cash, acquiring a 10 percent share in Beta Renewables along with marketing and other intellectual property rights. 

In addition to the plant under commissioning in Italy, Beta Renewables has licensed its technology to Brazil’s GraalBio Investimentos SA which expects the first of several planned plants to be mechanically complete by the end of the year and started up in early 2014. A Chemtex/Beta Renewables project in North Carolina has receive a conditional $99 million USDA loan guarantee. Ghisolfi said the company is still working through the planning details and hopes to begin construction in the third quarter.

The plant in Cresentino has been undergoing the commissioning process since last summer. It is not the first first-of-its-kind plant that his company has built, Ghisolfi explained. “The very first day you start up a plant, nothing works,” he said. Within a few weeks that’s down to a hundred issues and, as various problems are solved, narrows down to five or six issues. “Then you have to stop for redesign and it takes one or two months to fix,” he said. The process design is working, but while they had properly anticipated variability in moisture and sizing, he said they are working through issues raised by unexpected variability in foreign materials coming in with the biomass. The plant has been run successfully for several consecutive days, he reports, but then will shut down to make changes to the flows in the plant. He expects the commissioning process will be completed by the end of the second quarter.