Coskata: Biomass choices are nearly limitless

By Sarah Smith
Coskata Inc. is like a kid in a candy store. There's so much available biomass for a trash-to-gas enterprise, the possibilities are endless.

As the company nears decisions on where to build pilot-scale and commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol facilities, feedstock decisions are also being determined by the Illinois company that has partnered with General Motors Corp. to produce ethanol for under $1 per gallon. "We plan to run woody biomass, agricultural residue and municipal waste through the commercial demonstration," said Wes Bolsen, chief marketing officer and vice president of business development for Coskata. "We have not announced the commercial plant, the partner that we are doing it with or the [specific] feedstock yet," Bolsen said, adding that the company hopes to have the pilot plant producing by the end of 2008.

Coskata's process can extract the energy value in almost any carbon-containing materials in a synthetic gas stream, and bacterial fermentation by microorganisms then converts the syngas to ethanol. The company envisions using energy crops, wood chips, forestry products, tires, plastics and other municipal waste as feedstocks. The pilot plant will have a capacity of 40,000 gallons per year, while the commercial-scale plant will produce between 50 MMgy and 100 MMgy. Bolsen said the company hopes to break ground on the $300 million commercial plant in late 2008 or early 2009. Coskata has formed a strategic alliance with ICM Inc. to design and partially build the commercial plant, which will take two years to construct.

Coskata envisions a licensing agreement for the flexible feedstock technology, in which developers could use the enzyme process with locally abundant biomass to make low-cost ethanol anywhere in the United States or abroad. Meanwhile, GM has been gearing up production of its vehicle fleet, so that half of its models will run on ethanol by 2012, the automaker announced in February.