Later this month the construction will begin of one of America's very first ethanol plants fueled by wood scraps. The plant, developed by Gulf Coast Energy, is located in an abandoned lumber mill in Alabama´s Black Belt.
The production facility uses gasification on wood waste to produce ethanol and this method is quite different from those used in ethanol plants using fermented soybeans or corn. After an initial trial period, Gulf Coast Energy is planning to inject $90 million into the venture to get mass production up to speed. That investment should turn the outfit into a 45-million-gallon-per-year ethanol production facility.
Gasifying wood, compared to the fermentation of corn or soybeans, is absolutely wonderful because it's 100% clean. The Gulf Coast Energy plant processes waste sawdust and scrap timber mostly, but gasification can also be applied to any biomass material. It involves chopping the material into small parts and heating it up until a molecule construction combusts into hydrogen, carbon and oxygen and begins to create a synthetic gas, which then can easily be reassembled into fuels like ethanol, butanol, methanol and propanol.
In an interview with Birmingham News, Gulf Energy board member and lawyer Drayton Pruitt said the company had reviewed many options before it decided it would try out the wood fueled gasification ethanol option. The technology had been sophisticated by an unnamed inventor in Mississippi who had used his own money and grants for tests. Pruitt said that the technology was the highest yielding and the cleanest of methods that he and his colleagues at Gulf Energy had seen in the recent past.
Pruitt and his colleagues are planning to be fully operative in the Fall of 2009. By then, as many as 160 people are likely to be in their employ. In addition to ethanol, Gulf Energy is also going to pioneer biosynthetic diesel and perhaps biosynthetic gasoline. One ton of wood waste makes for around 215 gallons of fuel and it´s estimated that Alabama provides up to 15 million tons of wood waste a year.
Commercial exploitation of gasified biomass is rather new in the US. According to Birmingham News only a handful of other companies are exploring similar non-food materials. The Californian company BlueFire Ethanol recently got the green light to begin building an ethanol plant fueled by garden, wood waste and unrecyclable paper to the tune of 175 tons a day. The facility is going to be conveniently located right next to the county landfill in Lancaster, and will initially produce 3.1 million gallons of ethanol. First fuels to go on sale will hit the market next year in June, a BlueFire spokesman said.
It´s an indication that any tranquility in the competitive landscape in which the 100% clean Gulf Energy ethanol plant is being developed could be short lived. Now that petrol prices are going through the roof anyone who has an alternative is bound to receive a willing ear, if not from commercial investors outright then from industrial giants interested in setting up energy facilities to reduce their own operational costs. Just read the daily output of biofuelsdigest.com to see what´s going on. Of late this publication has been scoring a number of -mostly international- biofuel industry scoops, signaling that the pace is accelerating toward ever cleaner, better and also ever more moral biofuels.