Coskata completes semi-commercial cellulosic ethanol plant, chooses commercial plant site

By Anna Austin
Posted October 16, 2009, at 8:56 a.m. CST

Slow and steady wins the race, according to Coskata Inc. CEO Bill Roe.

The company, 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., on Oct. 15. Though slightly behind the start-up date announced initially, Roe 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.

Coskata employs a three-step process technology that is capable of converting multiple feedstocks including woody biomass, agricultural waste, energy crops and construction/industrial wastes into synthesis gas. The syngas undergoes bacterial fermentation using Coskata's proprietary microorganisms, and is converted into ethanol without using enzymes. The entire process reduces greenhouse gasses by about 96 percent compared with gasoline, and uses half the amount of water.

The $25 million semi-commercial plant, located 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.

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 more than 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.

Coskata chose the Southeast for its future commercial plant-slated for commission in 2012-for three reasons, according to Roe. "The Southeast U.S. is rich with woody biomass, a lot of which is available in the downturn in the housing market and the pulp and paper market," he said. "It's also an ethanol-poor area; they bring in their ethanol from the Midwest. We've done our market studies to find out what the markets look like in that area and how they grow over time. It's also in an area that's economically depressed, and we're going to create a lot of jobs. If you combine those factors-job creation in a place where there's about 20 percent employment, and a rich feedstock basket and where they want ethanol-it's perfect."

The plant will consume 3,000 wet tons of biomass per day, Roe said, so more than wood residuals will be needed at the plant site. "You can't sweep the floors and find that-you have to harvest," he added. "We've been working with feedstock suppliers. Ultimately, woody biomass is a great place to start, but not necessarily the answer because if we all relied on woody biomass, we'd eventually end up with the same problem as corn ethanol. In these areas, it's very possible to cultivate and grow energy crops."

Despite the wide array of companies striving to commercialize their cellulosic ethanol technology, Roe and Coskata Chief Marketing officer/Vice President of Governmental Affairs Wes Bolsen 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 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 like 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 hurdles to jump-but they are jumpable now-and it looks a lot better to me now than it did a year ago."