Ethanol Tries To Make The Cellulosic Switch

The U.S. ethanol industry, not long ago booming, is in decline. Rising commodity prices have hurt, as has a trend toward folk driving less; there’s just not enough gasoline out there to blend the ethanol into.

That’s a big part of the backstory that makes the developments last week out of Visalia, Calif., potentially interesting. There, a government-backed project to retrofit an ethanol plant to produce desperately sought cellulosic ethanol is claiming success.

edeniq logos corn to cellulosic

Logos and Edeniq Corn-to-Cellulosic Migration Project, Visalia, Calif. (image via Edeniq)

Edeniq, the technology provider on the Visalia project, said the pilot plant had “exceeded the benchmark of 1,000 hours of continuous operation,” processing on a daily basis at least 1 metric ton of corn stover (the leaves, stalks and other matter left behind after the edible portion of the corn plant is harvested).

“While we have been developing these ethanol technology solutions for years, being able to fully integrate and operate our own plant has given us invaluable, deeper insight into the intricacies of the process and has enabled us to continuously improve our core technologies and operations,” Thomas P. Griffin , chief technology officer at Edeniq, said in a statement.

The project in California’s San Joaquin Valley was supported with $20.5 million from the U.S. Department of Energy as part of the 2009 stimulus. Here’s the DOE’s elevator pitch for sending taxpayer money to this project [PDF]:

Logos, Inc. and Edeniq, Inc. have teamed on the Corn-to-Cellulosic Migration (CCM) Project to focus on the migration of billions of dollars of capital deployed in today’s corn ethanol industry toward cost-effective production of greener ethanol from corn stover, switchgrass, and woodchips.

Edeniq told EarthTechling that the switchgrass and woodchip aspects of the project haven’t happened yet, but the company said it has “done a number of laboratory-scale and smaller pilot-scale testing with both of these feedstocks in Visalia” and that “as we continue demonstration-scale testing under ongoing partial sponsorship by the California Energy Commission, alternative feedstocks (such as these) will be included.”

image via Union of Concerned Scientists

image via Union of Concerned Scientists

The U.S. renewable fuel standard is set to grow from 15.2 billion gallons of biofuels to 36 billion gallons by 2022. The presumption when the timetable was written in 2007 was that cellulosic biofuels would make up the vast majority of the new supplies, relieving the pressure that first-generation corn ethanol has put on food production. That hasn’t happened. As the Union of Concerned Scientists recently noted:

When created in 2007, the RFS contained a 2013 goal of one billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol. While the industry is rapidly commercializing — two commercial cellulosic biofuel facilities are starting up, and others are under construction – it is happening slower than anticipated due to the 2008 financial crisis, resulting in a revised goal of 14 million gallons that reflects current production capacity.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

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