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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

SunOpta and Celunol to Open U.S. Cellulosic Ethanol Demonstration Plant By Spring 2007

According to Ethanol Producer Magazine (EPM), Toronto, Ontario-based SunOpta Inc. has sold a continuous process system for the conversion of biomass-to-ethanol to Dedham, Mass.-based Celunol Corp (formerly BC International). The demonstration plant is scheduled to begin production by spring 2007.

SunOpta’s patented pretreatment and hydrolysis technology will prep and convert sugar cane bagasse and possibly hard wood waste to ethanol at a plant in Jennings, Louisiana. Celunol/BC International has been conducting research and development in Jennings with a small-scale pilot cellulose conversion system at an existing facility where much of the necessary infrastructure is already in place, EPM reports.

The SunOpta-designed system will only produce between 1.5 MMgy and 2 MMgy, and to produce much more than that will depend on Celunol’s downstream capacity and proportion of hardwoods to bagasse used for conversion, according to Murray Burke, vice president and general manager of SunOpta's BioProcessing Group. “We’ve been at this quite a while,” he told EPM, referring to recent conversion systems sales in the Netherlands, Spain and China, along with the 30-plus years Burke and his company have spent working toward developing its cellulose-to-ethanol technologies. The Jennings plant would be the first in the United States to use SunOpta's patented process. “It’s just been kicked to a new level,” Burke said.

BC International was renamed Celunol less than four months ago, Burke explained, and with four new venture capitalists on board the company is financially well-backed. The list of investors includes Vinod Khosla, founder of Sun Microsystems, who has heavily endorsed cellulosic ethanol as key to the future of transport fuels in the United States (and has kicked up quite a lot of controversy in the blogosphere in the process [that's three seperate links]).

The demo system is planned to be on-site in Jennings the first week in February 2007, EPM reports. “Another six to eight weeks after that they’ll be operational,” Burke told EPM, meaning a U.S. commercial demo plant will be producing ethanol from lignocellulosic materials by Spring 2007.

Burke said capital costs are “cut to the bone,” or minimized, when a company can utilize existing infrastructure, as Celunol is doing. The cellulosic ethanol industry is still in its infancy, Burke said, equating it to the starch-based ethanol industry in 1980. “With processes changing so rapidly, should we put large investments in things that are changing so fast?” he asked rhetorically. Companies should make use of infrastructures in place where capital costs can be minimized in order to integrate a cellulosic ethanol industry into commercialization faster and more economically, Burke said.

And so it begins...


Heiko said...

There's also a discussion of Vinod Khosla above, with both me and engineer poet commenting.


I noticed you commenting on hydrogen over on the ergosphere.

Personally, I think the capital cost for the fuel cells and hydrogen storage are at least as serious an issue as the pure efficiency aspect.

If hydrogen is produced thermochemically, be it from solar or nuclear or geothermal heat, hydrogen production could be 50% efficient, at least as good as electricity generation from the same heat (and an awful lot better than going via say PV cells and electrolysis).

So, 1 kWh of heat might give 0.5 kWh of hydrogen or 0.5 kWh of electricity. Assume efficient storage and the electric motor beats the fuel cell because of its greater efficiency (>90% compared to say 60%), but not by that much.

Would it be that much of an issue, if 1.5% of US desert area was covered with thermal collectors rather than 1%?

It wouldn't necessarily be if fuel cells were as cheap as ICE's and hydrogen could be stored on-board as easily as gasoline, and batteries still needed 8 hour charging and were $30,000 per car to give a 300 mile range.

After all, I think that covering 5% of US land with switchgrass for the same task wouldn't be an issue, as long as we are talking low inputs and the ethanol comes out as cheap as gasoline, and the competing technologies (such as batteries) don't make sufficient progress.

I think there's also a danger in overemphasising the immediate greenhouse gas reduction benefit. That's very low for hybrids, ethanol and wind at the moment. Without going into the detailed numbers, together they might make something like a 0.1% difference at the moment to worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.

But they aren't just funded or promising because of the little cut they are achieving today, but also because of what they could achieve in the future.

We are looking at technology development and concept proofing. How would we know that wind turbines can be efficiently scaled to 5 MW, if we hadn't invested in them at a much higher cost per tonne of CO2 saved than through say efficiency measures (be it loft insulation or improvements to coal fired power plants)?

And I say that even though I've been critical of wind funding in the past, not least based on its high cost per kWh.

I completely accept that at the moment, every kWh of wind will do more good displacing coal than being used to generate renewable hydrogen.

But, there is a case for developping better electrolysers, for working on fuel cells, gas storage and other hydrogen generating options, and on working out what particular challenges there are for fuel cells in cars.

It's foolish to claim that the hydrogen economy is a foregone conclusion, but there is no fundamental physical reason why it couldn't turn out to be the best path (efficient generation of the hydrogen in thermochemical solar plant, efficient storage in micro glass sphere at 1000 bar pressure, fuel cells as cheap as ICE's, but twice as efficient and not that much progress elsewhere).

Heiko said...

And another contribution from Vinod Khosla: