Sunday, August 06, 2006

U.S. cellulosic ethanol demo plant to start-up by spring '07

U.S. Cellulosic Ethanol
by Ron Kotrba
August 4, 2006

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 system is scheduled to be in production spring 2007.

SunOpta’s patented pretreatment and hydrolysis technology will prep and convert sugar cane bagasse and possibly hard wood waste to ethanol in Jennings, La. The former 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.

The SunOpta-designed system will produce between 1.5 MMgy and 2 MMgy, but 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 and China, along with the 30-plus years Burke and his company have spent working toward developing its cellulose-to-ethanol technologies. “It’s just been kicked to a new level.”

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. One such investor is Vinod Khosla, founder of Sun Microsystems.

The demo system is planned to be on-site in Jennings the first week in February 2007. “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.

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.

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