In a major milestone for next-generation fuels, a facility in Florida today became the world's first large-scale biorefinery to produce ethanol from waste using a technology that combines thermochemical and biological processes.
When fully operational, the Indian River BioEnergy Center in Vero Beach, Fla., will be capable of producing 8 million gallons a year of cellulosic ethanol from municipal solid waste, lawn clippings and woody biomass. INEOS Bio and New Planet Energy, the plant's operators, will begin shipping the ethanol next month.
"We've now moved into the commercial production phase," INEOS Vice President Dan Cummings announced today at an annual Department of Energy biomass conference in Washington, D.C.
The announcement comes a day after Sapphire Energy Inc., an algae company, announced that it has successfully repaid a loan from the Department of Agriculture for the nation's first demonstration-scale algae farm in New Mexico that produces crude oil (E&ENews PM, July 30).
It also comes at a crucial time for the cellulosic biofuels industry, which is facing pressure on Capitol Hill for falling short of the federal renewable fuel standard's targets for the past few years. Opponents of the standard in the refining industry have tagged cellulosic biofuels with the label "phantom fuels" and criticized federal regulators for forcing them to blend fuel that has not yet existed in the marketplace on a large scale.
On the site of an old grapefruit juice facility, the INEOS center will collect 250,000 raw tons of waste material a year from a 75-mile radius around the plant. INEOS completed construction last year and began producing renewable power for the surrounding area from several types of waste, including vegetative yard waste and citrus wood waste.
The plant is the first to employ a combination of thermochemical and biological processes to produce ethanol. Waste is fed into the plant and is dried and cooled, producing steam that moves turbines to create power and dries additional feedstocks. Synthesis gas produced in the process is fed into a bioreactor that contains microorganisms in a solution, which then ferment the product into a mixture of ethanol and water in about 10 minutes' time. The mixture is distilled and moved to storage.
INEOS acquired the technology about five years ago, but it has been under development for the past two decades, Cummings said. The entire facility cost about $130 million; both the Energy and Agriculture departments contributed funding to the project in the form of loans and grants.
In an interview this morning, Valerie Reed, acting director of DOE's Bioenergy Technologies Office, described herself as "gushing" with pride and excitement over the announcement.
"My 20-year career today culminated in success," said Reed, who received the initial proposal for the technology shortly after she first arrived at the Energy Department after graduate school.
"Someone once told me, 'Not in your lifetime.' But it is in my lifetime," Reed said. "INEOS is an extremely conservative company. They've taken their time in doing it right. And it's cliche, but slow and steady wins the race. And I'm extremely proud of this."
The biotechnology industry also applauded the news and said it signals that the renewable fuel standard is working to drive innovation in advanced biofuel technologies.
"The RFS has encouraged this investment and progress. Current efforts to destabilize the program are shortsighted and motivated solely by the oil refining industry's desire to block competition and consumer choice at the pump," said Brent Erickson, executive vice president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization's industrial and environmental section. "If Congress does what the oil refining industry is asking and repeals or revises the RFS at this critical juncture, it will strangle the advanced biofuels baby in the cradle."
Cummings said the company has had delegations from around the world come to view the technology; countries in Central and South America and Asia have expressed interest. INEOS has already completed the design of its second plant and expects to not only build new facilities but also license the technology.
Cummings said he expected renewable fuel credits from the first plant in Vero Beach to hit the market within 60 days. Refiners can use those credits to meet their annual obligations under the federal biofuels mandate.
Another company, KiOR Inc., is currently producing gasoline, diesel and jet fuel from plant-based feedstocks at a facility in Columbus, Miss. Unlike ethanol, which has to be blended with petroleum-based gasoline, the fuel produced at KiOR's facility can be used directly in existing infrastructure. Several other cellulosic facilities are scheduled to open within the next few years.
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