More than 20 years after a University of Arkansas chemical engineering professor conceived of the process, ground broke on what’s billed as the first commercial-scale plant in the United States that will turn yard, vegetative and household waste into advanced biofuels.
The Indian River Bioenergy Center, near Vero Beach, Fla., is a joint venture of INEOS Bio and New Planet Energy. According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the project owes a technological debt to Dr. James Gaddy, the Arkansas prof whose patents INEOS purchased in 2008. The DOE also gives itself a pat on the back, noting that it supported Gaddy’s work with a total of $5 million in investments between 1992 and 2007, and that it backed the under-construction plant with $50 million in Recovery Act funding in 2009. (The project also received $75 million in federal loan guarantees, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said last month.)
As the DOE explained it, the bioconversion process is pretty simple: “Vegetative and agricultural waste is reacted with oxygen to produce synthesis gas, consisting of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. The gas is cooled, cleaned, and fed to naturally occurring bacteria. The bacteria convert the gas into cellulosic ethanol, which is then purified to prepare for use as a transportation fuel.” Meanwhile, power is produced from heat recovered from the bioconversion process.
The plant is being built at a former citrus processing center. The project partners said they expect it to begin producing fuel and energy – 8 million gallons of bioethanol and 6 megawatts of power – by the middle of 2012. The DOE said similar plants are “well under way” in Lake County, Ind., and northeast New England.