ETHANOL:

Fla. university, 2 biotech firms partner in cellulosic venture

A pair of biotechnology companies is teaming up with the University of Florida to build a bio-based fuels and chemicals research and demonstration plant in the Florida Panhandle.

Construction crews plan to break ground this fall on the pilot-scale biorefinery adjacent to Buckeye Technologies Inc.'s existing wood cellulose processing plant in the town of Perry, about 95 miles northwest of Gainesville. Myriant Technologies LLC would operate the University of Florida-owned facility.

Memphis, Tenn.-based Buckeye would provide the biorefinery electricity and 5 dry tons of sugarcane bagasse, rice hulls, wood and other feedstock per day. Myriant would employ genetically modified E. coli bacteria developed by the university to convert the biomass into sugars, which would then be turned into cellulosic ethanol for automobiles and chemicals for biodegradable plastics, among other things.

The pilot plant, which is slated to begin operations late next year, will have the capacity to produce up to 400 gallons of cellulosic ethanol or 6,000 pounds of organic acid per day, said Sam McConnell, Myriant's senior vice president for corporate development.

"This is the first fully integrated biorefinery," added McConnell, whose Quincy, Mass.-based company was spun off from BioEnergy International LLC yesterday.

Myriant holds exclusive rights to develop chemicals using the University of Florida technology. Cambridge, Mass.-based Verenium Corp. holds the license for the UF cellulosic ethanol production technology that will be used at the Perry pilot plant.

Verenium is employing the same technology at its own ethanol pilot plant in Jennings, La. The company plans to break ground later this year on its first commercial-scale plant -- a 36-million-gallon-a-year facility -- in Highland County, Fla.

Verenium plans to put a $7 million grant from the state of Florida toward the commercial-scale plant's more than $250 million capital cost. Myriant will use a $20 million grant from the state to cover the Perry project's entire cost.

The university broke ground last fall on its own cellulosic ethanol project. The small-scale biorefinery, located on the university's Gainesville campus, will be used to train graduate students in biofuel production, purification and testing (Greenwire, Oct. 9, 2008).

The lifecycle production and consumption of cellulosic ethanol, which can be made from non-food plants grown on marginal land, results in about 90 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline, according to an Energy Department analysis. The renewable fuel, which has high production costs compared to corn ethanol, is produced and sold on a very limited basis.

"We're trying to break our dependence on petroleum; fuel is a big part of that, but it's not the only part," said Lonnie Ingram, the UF microbiology professor who led the development of the E. coli strain.

"Learning how to develop these valuable byproducts not only helps to make cellulosic ethanol more economically feasible," he added, "but it takes the environmental impact of cellulosic ethanol and extends it to new areas -- like plastic water bottles that won't take up space in a landfill for thousands of years."

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