Ore. plant begins producing cellulosic ethanol

Posted: Friday, March 15, 2013

BOARDMAN, Ore. — Production of cellulosic ethanol — a type of biofuel made from the inedible parts of plants — is under way at a demonstration facility in Boardman and could be moving toward larger-scale commercial development.

The Colorado-based ZeaChem Inc. announced Wednesday it has successfully produced cellulosic ethanol at its integrated biorefinery at the Port of Morrow, among the first operational cellulosic biorefineries in the world.

ZeaChem uses sawdust from the neighboring GreenWood Resources poplar tree farm as biomass to create the fuel, which can also be made from wheat straw and corn stover. The process then uses enzymes to break the materials down into simple sugars, which are fermented and distilled.

Construction at the demonstration plant was completed finished late last year and was backed in part by $25 million from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Integrated Biorefinery Program. It has the capacity to produce up to 250,000 gallons of cellulosic ethanol per year.

As ZeaChem eventually scales up production of cellulosic ethanol, CEO Jim Imbler said they hope to start construction on a state-of-the-art commercial biorefinery by 2014 with capacity for up to 25 million gallons per year.

That plant would also be built at the Port of Morrow, adjacent to the current demonstration facility.

“We’re pretty excited. These are a lot of jobs, they’re technical jobs and it affects the community in a very positive way,” Imbler said.

Though the processes are not yet working perfectly, Imbler said he is pleased with their progress.

An initial phase of the Boardman plant was finished in January 2012 to manufacture acetic acid and acetate, intermediate chemicals used in products such as paint thinners or plastic.

The second and most recent phase now allows ZeaChem to either sell this acetic acid or convert it into cellulosic ethanol. The next step, Imbler said, is fine-tuning their work and tap into markets worth an estimated $485 billion.

“It’s validation to our investors. Now we just need to go back and do it better and better,” Imbler said.

Development of the full-scale commercial plant is already supported by a conditional loan guarantee from the USDA worth $232.5 million. As a supplier of cellulosic ethanol, ZeaChem is working with companies like GreenWood Resources, Valero Energy Corp. and Chrysler Group LLC.

Imbler believes the price of crude oil will continue to rise, giving ZeaChem an advantage in producing cheaper, efficient cellulosic ethanol.

“Once we get to that point, our future is hot,” he said. “There is a huge

demand for ethanol.”