Wood-to-ethanol production underway in Wyoming

By Hope Deutscher
Web exclusive posted Jan. 30, 2008, at 12:20 p.m. CST

A cellulosic ethanol plant using waste wood as a feedstock is now operating near Upton, Wyo. The demonstration-scale facility, called Western Biomass Energy LLC, was engineered, constructed and is operated by KL Process Design Group. Production officially started in August.

This is the result of six years of development efforts between KL Process Design and the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, said Tom Martin, KL Process Design media relations manager. "We truly believe it's the first plant in America and possibly in the world that is producing ethanol from waste wood," he said. "We certainly want to move forward with this. This wasn't the end of our race. In fact, this is just the first milestone in the race to produce alternative fuels from waste wood."

The Upton plant is expected to produce 1.5 million gallons of ethanol annually. The next step is to perfect the process, Martin said. "Just producing the ethanol is the first standard," he said. "[The next step] is refining the process so that it's maybe more economical to do it and then take it to a commercial level."

KL Process Design is using proprietary technologies and newly developed enzymes to release fermentable sugars hidden within the wood without using environmentally unfriendly acids. The company entered the grain-based ethanol industry in 2002. With two other plants in operation–Midwest Renewable Energy LLC in Sutherland, Neb., and North Country Ethanol LLC in Rosholt, S.D.–this is the company's first venture into the cellulosic ethanol side of the industry. "This was something we saw quite a ways back–that there was gong to be a need beyond grain-based ethanol and that in fact there would be a need for cellulosic ethanol as well as grain-based ethanol," Martin said. "One thing that is important to KL is that we are simply bridging the cap between the two [needs]. We're not in any way stating that we want to get away from grain-based ethanol because every piece of this is just another component toward the solution. We certainly don't believe that even grain and cellulosic will be the answer in its entirety, but in fact, we think that they are parts of the bigger answer."

Expansion of the Upton plant is a possiblity, as is using it as a testing ground for other cellulosic production using feedstocks such as sawgrass, cardboard or paper, Martin said.