Coskata: Slow and steady wins the race

By Anna Austin
Coskata Inc., along with strategic investor General Motors Corp. and plasma gasification veteran Alter NRG Corp., officially unveiled its semi-commercial cellulosic ethanol facility near Madison, Pa., in mid-October. Though slightly behind the start-up date announced initially, CEO Bill Roe said that "slow and steady wins the race." He attributed the company's progress to a "hybrid approach" to cellulosic ethanol-a combination of biochemical and thermochemical technologies-and the significance of being truly feedstock flexible.

"A number of other companies are moving down these pathways (thermochemical and biochemical), and bringing these types of technologies to commercialization-it's all based on good, sound science, but there are inherent strengths and weaknesses in both of those," Roe said. "What we've done is take the best of both-a thermal front end that gives the feedstock flexibility that we allude to, combined with a biological conversion step which gives us very high yields, and singular product as opposed to a range of products."

Coskata's process technology is capable of converting multiple feedstocks, including woody biomass, agricultural waste, energy crops and construction/industrial wastes, into synthesis gas. The syngas is cleaned, cooled and passed through a conversion process, where it undergoes bacterial fermentation using Coskata's proprietary microorganisms. "They have a singular purpose, and that is to ingest CO2 and hydrogen and exhale ethanol," Roe said. "We've made them into super athletes in the course of our technology development. They perform not like they do in nature, but like we need them to in an industrial process; we've done lots of microbiological work and strain management development."

The $25 million semi-commercial plant, 30 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, is co-located with a pilot-plant gasifier owned and operated by a unit of Calgary, Alberta's Alter NRG, which has been perfecting its technology for several decades.

Among many technology advancements made since the commissioning of the company's first pilot plant in Warrenville, Ill., Roe said water consumption reduction is significant. "It's not something that gets a lot of play, but we're very interested and concerned," he said. "At our first commercial plant, we will have reduced the total water consumption to 1.3 gallons per gallon of ethanol produced, far below anything right now, and we think that's going to be a very important parameter in the future."
Now that Project Lighthouse is complete, Roe said a site in the southeastern U.S. has been selected for the company's first commercial-scale facility, and that Coskata would likely be pulling in licensee companies over the next few months. "We've chosen to be a technology provider, rather than an operating company," he said.

The plant will consume 3,000 wet tons of biomass per day, Roe said, so it will need more than just wood residuals as feedstock. "You can't sweep the floors and find that-you have to harvest," he added. "We've been working with feedstock suppliers."
Engineering and design for the commercial plant began in November 2008, Roe said, and a feedstock study was completed in June. "Now, we're revisiting the design work, and basing it on what we're learning from the commissioning from this [Madison] facility," he said. "We'll put a final polish on the design work at the end of this year so we're ready to go to the EPC (engineering, procurement and construction) in 2010, with projected start-up in late 2012."

Despite the wide array of companies striving to commercially produce cellulosic ethanol, Roe and Wes Bolsen, Coskata chief marketing officer/vice president of governmental affairs, said they think the U.S. will likely miss the first few renewable fuels standard (RFS) targets. "We can say the goals that were put out there needed to be aggressive goals, because they were meant to spawn action," Roe told Biomass Magazine. "Also, it's partially true that the credit crunch and drying up of the markets was a factor; you can't get money for projects, particularly for first-of-a-kind technologies. They're not lending like they once did or will eventually, but you can't hang everything on that. A lot of us in this space have been slower to bring our technologies forward than what was originally thought or promised."

Roe added that companies such as Coskata and a few others that are coming fast, can fill the gap and eventually fall in line with the targets, provided they have some access to project financing. "I'm optimistic," he said. "I think the credit markets are starting to thaw and there will be financing for projects with proven technology platforms. Yes, there are hurdles to jump-but they are jumpable now-and it looks a lot better to me now than it did a year ago."

So what does Coskata's progress mean for the industry? "We think right now there's a definite need-particularly with the way that ethanol has been banged around in the recent past-to get some good news out there because there are some companies like Coskata and others that are coming, and coming rapidly," Roe said. "Now that we have demonstrated this, and verified our cost structures at this scale, we can begin the build-out of full scale in the immediate future."