January 27, 2008

How Far Off Is Cellulosic Ethanol?

The promise of cellulosic ethanol it seems has been just around the corner for quite a while now. We have been hearing about plants in the planning stages for forever it seems. Well how much longer are we going to have to wait?

The most precise answer would be... it depends. As I mentioned cellulosic plants have been in the planning stages for some time and all during that time the ethanol detractors were saying that cellulosic ethanol wasn't possible. And this is somewhat curious because making cellulosic ethanol isn't a new technology. The problem wasn't that we didn't know how to make it was that we couldn't make at a cost where it could compete with gasoline. To get an idea how long this technology has been around check out this article from 1983 explaining how to make ethanol from sawdust in your garage.

Then a couple of years ago, the first pilot scale cellulosic ethanol plants began construction. Pilot scale plants are low volume production plants used to demonstrate the technology that that particular company employs and also to further refine the process before moving to a larger scale plant.

In February 2007, Celunol (now Verenium) completed it's pilot scale plant rated at 50,000 gallons per year in Jennings, LA. At the same time it broke ground on it's demonstration scale plant rated at 1.4 million gallons of ethanol per year. The demonstration plant is expected to be completed before April of this year.

Press Release

In March 2007, KL Process Design Group began operation of it's demonstration scale facility rated at 1.5 million gallons per year in Upton WY.


In October 2007, Abengoa completed it's pilot scale plant in York, NE.

Press Release

With two pilot and one demonstration scale facilities running the ethanol detractors could no long claim that cellulosic ethanol wasn't possible so the conversation changed to cellulosic ethanol hadn't been proven commercially feasible because there were no commercial scale facilities operating.

In November 2007, Range Fuels broke ground on what will be the nations first commercial scale plant near Soperton, GA. The plant is scheduled to be completed this year and will initially produce 20 million gallons of ethanol per year.

Press Release

There are also several projects in various stages of planning but I don't believe at the moment that there are any more in the construction phase.

According to Ethanol Producer Magazine there are currently six operating cellulosic ethanol plants worldwide. To some that would mean that cellulosic ethanol has already arrived. To others it won't be until commercial sized plants are operating that it has arrived. So for those people it should be here later this year when Range Fuels begins production. But as you can see from the article there are varying definitions of what constitutes commercial scale so even that may not mean that it has arrived. Like I said, it all depends.

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