Wood waste fuels race for cellulosic ethanol
The nation’s first commercialized cellulosic ethanol
facility, designed to turn wood waste into fuel, is under construction
and set to open later this year near Soperton, Georgia.
Range Fuels, Inc. has successfully tested close to 30 types of biomass
for producing ethanol at its testing facility in Broomfield, Colorado.
The commercialized facility in Georgia will use wood waste as its feedstock
to produce more than 100 million gallons per year.
“Wood waste has already proven to be a feasible fuel alternative from
a production and economic standpoint,” said Mitch Mandich, chief executive
officer of Range Fuels.
Range Fuels was one of six companies selected by the Department of Energy
(DOE) for financial support in building a commercial cellulosic ethanol
plant. As part of the $76 million DOE investment, Range Fuels will receive
$50 million for the first 20 million gallon-per-year phase. The remaining
$26 million will be provided for construction of the next phase.
Mandich said that unlike other methods of producing cellulosic ethanol,
Range Fuels’ technology eliminates enzymes, which have been an expensive
component of producing cellulosic ethanol. The company’s proprietary
thermo-chemical conversion process, known as the K2 system, uses a two
step process to convert biomass to fuel-grade cellulosic ethanol.
The biomass is first fed into a converter. Heat, pressure and steam convert
the biomass into a synthesis or syngas. It is then cleaned before entering
the second step. The syngas is passed over a proprietary catalyst and
transformed into mixed alcohol, which is separated and processed. This
maximizes the yield of ethanol for a quality suitable for fueling vehicles.
“The forests of Georgia can support up to two billion gallons a year
of cellulosic ethanol production using Range Fuels’ technology,” Mandich
said. He said Soperton’s proximity to feedstock supplies and ethanol
markets means that transportation costs will be kept low.
Cellulosic ethanol produced from wood waste has a number of advantages
compared to corn-based ethanol, Mandich said. “Cellulosic ethanol gives
off fewer carbon emissions.” He said cellulosic ethanol reduces greenhouse
gas emissions by 85 percent over unreformulated gasoline. Starch-based
ethanol, which frequently uses natural gas to provide energy for the
production process, reduces greenhouse gases by only 18 to 29 percent,
Range Fuel’s process also uses about one-fourth of the water required
by corn-based ethanol plants and an even smaller percentage of projected
water use of other cellulosic ethanol processes that use enzymes and
organisms to produce cellulosic ethanol, Mandich said.
Ethanol consumption is currently hovering near 7 billion gallons annually
and is projected to rise to 11 to 12 billion gallons annually within
the next 2 to 3 years, Mandich said. He noted that recently signed federal
legislation would boost ethanol demand further.
President George W. Bush signed the “The Energy Independence and Security
Act” late last year, which includes a renewable fuel standard that calls
for the use of 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels, 16 billion gallons
of which are to come from cellulosic ethanol by 2022.
Range Fuels projects that several hundred millions of dollars will be
invested in its first cellulosic ethanol plant. In addition to public
funding, money for the project is coming from private investors, including
Khosla Ventures, a venture-capital firm in Menlo Park, California.
Samir Kaul, a general partner at the firm, would not release the amount
of money that Khosla Ventures has invested. But he said there is plenty
of money available for cellulosic ethanol projects. “Venture capitalists
are pouring money into green energy,” Kaul said.
“Range’s technology can produce cellulosic ethanol cheaply, and has the
potential to scale rapidly in a way that other biofuels cannot. We think
production costs of $1.25 are reasonable and we expect it to eventually
end up below $1.00 per gallon, making it competitive.”
George Douglas, a spokesperson for the DOE’s National Renewable Energy
Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, said that wood waste and other cellulosic
material could contribute greatly to the nation’s fuel supply. “Market
potential for cellulosic ethanol is huge,” Douglas said.
The DOE estimates that the country consumes more than 140 billion gallons
of gasoline a year and it estimates about one-third of that could be
replaced by various forms of ethanol.
“The economics are improving. The DOE’s goal is to have commercially
available cellulosic ethanol at price parity with corn ethanol by 2012
and to have cellulosic ethanol contributing significantly to a 20 percent
reduction in gasoline use by 2017,” Douglas said.
“Since there are no commercial cellulosic ethanol plants today, we really
don’t know what the per gallon cost would be, but it’s likely about double
where we’d like it to be.”
Other firms are also investing in projects to turn wood waste into cellulosic
ethanol. Dynamotive Energy Systems Corp. in Vancouver, Canada, plans
to invest $24 million in a commercial plant near Willow Springs, Missouri.
The plant is designed to convert 200 tons a day of wood-by-products and
residues from nearby sawmills into 34,000 gallons a day of fuel.
According the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), nearly six million
tons of wood waste is generated each year. Wood waste includes urban
wood waste, wood debris from suburban land cleaning, and rural forestry
residuals. Markets for recovered wood vary across the country, but the
EPA reports the current market is dominated by mulch and fuel applications.
Harry Boyle, an analyst with New Energy Finance Ltd. in London, recently
traveled to the United States to talk to cellulosic researchers and developers.
He said that turning wood waste into cellulosic fuel is not yet economical
because it has not been scaled up yet. He said that plants like Range
Fuels’ in Georgia, once fully operational, would show how economical
Boyle said that these cellulosic ethanol projects would not be feasible
without government money providing an accelerator. “Maybe in three or
four year’s time it wouldn’t be necessary. But the government is very
keen, obviously, to get alternative forms of fuel,” he said.