ZeaChem completes construction of core technology for demo plant

By Bryan Sims | January 05, 2012

Lakewood, Colo.-based ZeaChem Inc. has achieved a significant milestone by completing construction and installation of the core technology for its 250,000 gallon per year integrated biorefinery in Boardman, Ore. Funded primarily by Silicon Valley venture capitalists, ZeaChem managed to complete the project on schedule and under budget, according to ZeaChem President and CEO Jim Imbler.

“This milestone is really a credit to the technology and to our EPC partner Burns & McDonnell,” Imbler told Biorefining Magazine.

Specifically, the newly installed core technology will allow ZeaChem to convert woody biomass into higher volumes of acetic acid and ethyl acetate, which are two high-value biobased intermediate chemicals that can be used in a range of applications such as in paints, lacquers and solvents. According to Imbler, the core technology will also now allow the company to provide sufficient quantities of acetic acid and ethyl acetate to commercial and industrial customers for trial testing its initial product offerings out of the facility.

“We’re seeing just tremendous interest from chemical end-user companies,” Imbler said.

Case in point, Imbler alluded to its ongoing joint development agreement with Proctor & Gamble, which has a commitment to convert 25 percent of its packaging and products over to renewable or recyclable materials, as well as the company’s interest in potentially supplying future chemicals and cellulosic ethanol to the automotive market, as evidenced by its ongoing collaboration with Chrysler Group LLC.

“When you look at the molecules that we make, they go into just a plethora of products,” Imbler said.

Imbler added that construction is underway to add front-end process technology to convert wood and straw biomass into cellulosic sugars and, at the back end, to install hydrogenation equipment to convert ethyl acetate into cellulosic ethanol at the demonstration facility. This separate “bookends” project is supported by a $25 million grant from the U.S. DOE. Once operational later this year, it will result in the production of a maximum of 250,000 gallons of cellulosic ethanol annually.

Additionally, ZeaChem will use a $40 million grant from the USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative awarded in September for the installation of additional equipment that will allow the production of biobased distillate fuels, such as alcohol-based jet and diesel fuels. Imbler said this project is expected to be complete and operational sometime next year.

According to Imbler, preliminary work is underway for development of the company’s first commercial-scale integrated biorefinery based on the design of its demonstration facility in Boardman. Imbler said the future commercial-scale facility will be co-located on site of the demonstration facility and is expected to have an annual production rate of about 25 MMgy. The company has already locked up a long-term feedstock supply agreement with Greenwood Resources to supply hybrid popular to the future commercial facility.

Upon successful validation of its process technology for producing sufficient volumes of cellulosic ethanol and biobased chemicals under its C2 carbon chain product group, Imbler said the company will target the production of chemical intermediates that fall under its C3 carbon chain product group, such as propylene glycol, propanol, propionic acid and propylene monomers.

“It will really be a true first-of-its-kind biorefinery,” Imbler said. “It’s really exciting because we’re seeing a lot of interest from a lot of different customers in the chemical space that tell us their customers want to be greener.”