Two companies pursue commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol projects

By Bryan Sims
The race is on to build the first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant in the United States. Broomfield, Colo.-based Range Fuels announced July 2 that the company had been awarded a construction permit from the state of Georgia to build a 100 MMgy commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant. Seventeen days later, Cambridge, Mass.-based Mascoma Corp. announced its intentions of building a similar project in Michigan.

Range Fuels, funded by Khosla Ventures LLC, will break ground this summer on the first phase of its facility-20 MMgy of capacity-in Soperton, Ga. It will predominantly use Georgia pine as its feedstock. According to CEO Mitch Mandich, the first phase is scheduled to be complete in 2008. A timeline hasn't been announced for when the facility would reach 100 MMgy of capacity.

"It's very exciting because I think it will stimulate a lot of additional investment in green energy and help our country in a number of different ways," Mandich said of the project. The facility will have a modular architecture, which makes adding capacity easier.

Once operational, Range Fuels intends to market the ethanol through Savannah- and Macon-based blenders and ship the product via rail and truck, according to Mandich. The project is underway thanks to a $76 million federally funded grant by the U.S. DOE. The company is also looking at six possible sites for additional cellulosic ethanol plants, Mandich said.

Mascoma also plans to use wood waste as its main feedstock. Although the state has been chosen, a specific site is still pending.

Michigan State University and Michigan Technological University will partner with Mascoma to develop and hone scientific processes for the project. Michigan State will provide expertise in pretreatment technology and assistance with energy crops. Michigan Tech will provide expertise through its "Wood to Wheels" initiative, in which it offers optimization of forestry materials for energy use and knowledge of sustainable forestry management practices. It will also provide access to its automotive engineering laboratories for analysis of the biofuels produced at the site.

"Michigan is an excellent state for one of the country's first cellulosic ethanol plants, given its many tons of biomass available for conversion into low-carbon, domestically produced fuel," Mascoma CEO Bruce Jamerson said.