Mascoma, UT partner for cellulosic ethanol plant

By Jerry W. Kram
Mascoma Corp. and the University of Tennessee (UT) have finalized their partnership to develop a 5 MMgy switchgrass-to-ethanol plant in Monroe County, Tenn. The partnership will include $40 million for facility development, and $27 million for research and development. The partnership is a result of the university's Biofuels Initiative, which has a goal of reducing the nation's dependence on foreign oil while benefiting the economy and environment of Tennessee.

The plant will be located in the Niles Ferry Industrial Park in Vonore, about 35 miles south of Knoxville. The site was ideal because of the economic and agricultural potential of the area, in keeping with the priorities of the biofuels initiative. The plant will use about 170 tons of switchgrass per day at full capacity. Construction of the plant is expected to begin before the end of the year and be completed by 2009. This is Mascoma's third announced project. The first is a demonstration-scale plant under construction in New York, and the second is a commercial-scale plant planned in Michigan. The Tenessee project will be Mascoma's first to use switchgrass as a feedstock.

The university's Institute for Agriculture will participate in the project by encouraging farmers to produce switchgrass. An $8 million incentive program for farmers is being developed. The program will include direct payments to farmers until a market for switchgrass is developed. Farmers will also receive high-quality switchgrass seed and technical assistance for switchgrass production. The institute estimates that Tennessee could grow enough switchgrass to make 1 billion gallons of ethanol.

The project will also be able to draw on the expertise of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which was recently awarded $125 million from the U.S. DOE to create the Bioenergy Science Center to address the technological challenges of producing cellulosic ethanol.