Cellulosic ethanol has been a “just around the corner” technology for a bit too long to hold most people’s attention. The fuel — made from indigestible waste from lawn maintenance, wood products, and agriculture — has all the promise of renewable fuel that conventional ethanol once held without the inconvenient realities of rising food prices, and environmental wear and tear, but it has never come to fruition.
But now a company in Florida, INOES Bio, is producing this futuristic fuel at commercial quantities for the first time, using local yard, vegetative and agricultural waste, including that from the area’s abundant citrus groves.
It’s a clean technology milestone — the dream is happening.
At its Indian River BioEnergy Center in Vero Beach, Florida, wood and vegetative matter is heated in a partial oxygen environment, creating hydrogen and carbon monoxide gas. Bacteria then eat the gas, excreting an alcohol which is then distilled. The company hopes to soon add municipal solid waste into its fuel mix.
The target is for the plant to produce 8 million gallons of ethanol a year and use the heat generated during production to generate 6 megawatts of renewable energy — enough to power the entire facility and export power to the local community. The first ethanol shipments are expected this month.
The plant is located in the heart of Florida’s orange-growing country and the community was faced with a surplus of green waste after a NAFTA agreement drove up the cost of citrus and forced many farmers to reduce their acreage. In an interview with E&E, Helene Caseltine, economic development director for the Indian River Chamber of Commerce said the economic impact of INEOS Bio coming to town has been “incredible.” The paywalled article goes on to say, “it has spent $130 million in capital investments and millions more for permits and land planning. The plant employs 65 people on site, with many dozens more employed indirectly … The average wage for workers is $50,000 per year, about $16,000 more than the county average.”
First scheduled to open at the end of last year, the BioEnergy Center has seen its share of setbacks, including difficulties transporting methane from a local landfill to its boilers and the time lost when a thunderstorm knocked out power to the facility and the plant took weeks to get back up online.
The gasification-fermentation technology which has made the dream a reality, was developed at the University of Arkansas with the help of over $5 million in Department of Energy grants. INOES has also received $50 million in stimulus money, as well as $75 million in loans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
While the Indian River BioEnergy Center may be a first, it won’t be alone for long. Ethanol company Poet LLC and DSM are hard at work building their own plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa, which will have an estimated capacity of 25 million gallons. DuPont is working on its own 30 million gallon plant in Nevada, Iowa and Abengoa Energy of Spain is building a 23 million gallon facility in Hugoton, Kansas. And don’t forget that KiOR inc. has been producing cellulosic diesel and gasoline at its plant in Columbus, Mississippi for months now.
Despite all the exciting recent developments, there is no doubt that the industry still has a long way to go. According to the 2009 Renewable Fuel Standard mandate the U.S. was supposed to be on track to produce 1 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuels this year — an order of magnitude more than can reasonably be expected by the end of the year.