Automaker backing good for advanced biofuels, biobased chemicals

By Bryan Sims | August 18, 2011

Lakewood, Colo.-based biorefining firm ZeaChem Inc. signed a memorandum of understanding with Chrysler Group LLC to accelerate the development and market adoption of cellulosic ethanol.

According to Jim Imbler, president and CEO of ZeaChem, one of the primary goals of the strategic alliance with Chrysler will be to help the company promote positive consumer perception about the concept of cellulosic ethanol.

“That’s something that Chrysler can do better than us,” Imbler told Biorefining Magazine, adding that the partnership is evidence that automobile manufacturers like Chrysler haven’t lost sight of their support for advanced biofuels. “We see that as very helpful [in] moving the industry forward, a clear commitment from automobile manufacturers again that they want to see cellulosic ethanol out there in the marketplace.”

In addition to promoting the credibility of cellulosic ethanol, Imbler said the strategic partnership will allow ZeaChem to tap Chrysler’s robust resource network in Michigan as it pursues identifying sites for its commercial production facilities near auto-manufacturing plants where it can serve as a fuel and chemical supplier.

According to Imbler, ZeaChem’s first commercial plant, expected to have an annual capacity of 25 MMgy, is planned for location adjacent to its 250,000-gallon-per-year demonstration facility near Boardman, Ore., currently under construction and intended to use woody biomass as feedstock. However, Imbler said the company is also considering Michigan or Canada as potential sites for future commercial production facilities where abundant concentrations of woody biomass are plentiful.

“We are starting to look beyond Oregon,” Imbler said. “We like Oregon and we see Boardman as the foundation of our initial efforts.”

According to Imbler, the Boardman biorefinery project is progressing on time and on schedule for a fall start-up, adding that the first phase of construction was 80 percent completed in late July. The biorefinery, according to Imbler, will produce and test quantities of ethyl acetate by the end of the year with significant volumes of cellulosic ethanol volumes projected to follow shortly thereafter. Testing of its acetic acid is expected to follow. 

“The nice thing about this plant,” Imbler said, “is that with a rate of 250,000 gallons per year, we can make sufficient volumes for testing. One of the things you’re going to see is that, when you’re making chemicals, people are going to tend to want to get their hands on a sufficient quantity to run through a process and make the physical item where with fuels you just run to spec.”