On paper, making fuel from plant materials looks like a simple five-step process.
You start with a bundle of twigs. Separate the cellulose, add enzymes, then let the brew ferment. A couple of chemical processes later, you’re powering a car with a product that quite literally grows on trees.
In reality, large-scale ethanol production has only rarely been able to compete with the cost of a barrel of oil. And with the recent recession, the dream of cheap, renewable fuel seems even further from reach.
But former oil executive Jim Imbler, who now heads a Colorado biofuels company called ZeaChem Inc., thinks he might have found the key to profitability in Oregon.
And it lies in Boardman, home to one of the nation’s largest hybrid poplar tree farms, grown by Portland-based GreenWood Resources.
“We’ve done the math, and we can compete with $40- to $50-a-barrel crude oil,” said Imbler, based in Lakewood, Colo. “We’re really excited to get going in Oregon.” Backed by $40 million in venture capital, ZeaChem plans to build a demonstration plant in Boardman that will convert Oregon hybrid poplar trees, grass and agricultural waste into ethanol.
Using an innovative technology, the biorefinery could mean a breakthrough for the biofuels industry, on a quest to meet federal mandates for alternative fuels.
Experts believe cellulose, found in nearly every plant, tree and bush, may be the future for abundant, affordable ethanol. And Oregon, with its vast tree farms, forests and farmlands, is poised to be a field of dreams for the industry, recently criticized for relying too heavily on corn, pitting food resources against fuel.
“Corn is a very energy intensive crop,” said Rick Wallace, the state’s biofuels coordinator. “Biomass has a smaller carbon footprint, and we have a lot of it here. There are a lot of benefits for Oregon if we can develop these technologies.”
By the end of the year, ZeaChem plans to break ground on a five-acre site owned by the Port of Morrow. It hopes its tests, using eastern Oregon wheat straw and trimmings from the Umatilla National Forest, will eventually lead to a commercial plant that pumps out up to 50 million gallons of ethanol a year.
But like many biofuels entrepeneurs on a sprint to the next generation, ZeaChem is gambling on the unknown. Across the Northwest, corn ethanol plants that attracted millions of dollars in public and private investment now stand idle.
By all accounts, ZeaChem’s technology looks promising.
“(Their technology) has a very big potential,” Wallace said. “But can it be done at a commercial level economically? We don’t know these answers yet. If they do, it’s a real benefit to Oregon. “
Links to Oregon
Dozens, if not hundreds, of companies are racing toward cellulosic ethanol production, which must meet a federal mandate of 16 billion gallons by 2022.
ZeaChem’s secret weapon: a bacterium found in the guts of termites. The bacterium, acetogen, ferments cellulose into acetic acid, which can eventually be turned into ethanol.
The company’s demonstration plant, unlike some other technologies, will use a variety of plant materials, producing about 1.5 million gallons of ethanol a year.
“We can feed softwood trees, hardwood trees, corn cobs,” Imbler said. “If you think about a termite, it doesn’t really care. Our vision is to become a technological skunkworks.”
ZeaChem, with 30 employees and a lab in California, says its patented process offers higher yields at lower cost, with a lower carbon footprint than other methods. The bacterium can also be used to make another, more valuable chemical, ethyl acetate, a solvent in varnishes and lacquers. It enables the development of other lines of business, turning plant material into solvents for paints or chemicals used in plastics.
“We believe ZeaChem is the leading advanced biofuel company,” said Paul Batcheller, a partner in South Dakota-based PrairieGold Venture Partners, a major investor in ZeaChem. “One thing is that their yields translates to a huge economic advantage. I think Oregon has a great advantage in terms of feedstock and marketing the project.”
Oregon offers fertile ground for the company’s giant leap. For starters, the state may provide a financial sweetner: ZeaChem has applied for the state’s Business Energy Tax Credits, which would be worth about $6.5 million.
Another key reason for locating in Oregon: proximity to GreenWood Resources, which owns the 26,000-acre hybrid poplar tree farm in Boardman. The company also owns 6,000 acres near Clatskanie and accounts for 90 percent of the state’s poplar production.
“We love hybrid poplar because its the best deal we can find now,” Imbler said. “If you have something that can grow cheaper, faster, we’re all for it. But I think the hybrid poplar is hard to beat.”
When it comes to growing trees fast and inexpensively, GreenWood Resources is a well-known expert. Its poplars, through traditional breeding methods, can grow 10 to 15 feet each year. The company’s partnership will provide a steady feedstock near the test plant.
“They’re going to need feedstock 24-7 once they get to the commercial level,” said Jake Eaton, GreenWood’s managing director of global acquisitions and resource planning. “We can optimize high yields and produce a low-cost dedicated feedstock.”
Studies show hybrid poplar is a fairly efficient feedstock for cellulosic ethanol. The partnership allows GreenWood to develop trees for a growing market in cellulosic-based chemicals and ethanol.
“From what we can see, they have the best technology out there,” Eaton said.
Recession and risks But making fuel out of plants is not the hard part. After all, scientists over the past year have turned coffee grounds into biodiesel and watermelon rinds into ethanol. Big oil companies are investing billions of dollars into growing algae.
The challenge is to build a commercial plant, which will take lots of plant material and money.
ZeaChem’s project comes at a turbulent time for nation’s ethanol industry, shaken by bankruptcies and failures over the past year. Along with other agricultural industries, biofuels rode the rollercoaster commodities market to its heights last year, only to have prices collapse with the recession.
The fallout from the credit crisis delivered a double punch, freezing access to credit and private capital for new research and construction. Then early this year, oil prices fell, making it difficult for ethanol producers to compete at the pump. So far, all commercial ethanol plants in the U.S. use corn.
“A number of plants misread the commodity markets,” says John Urbanchuk, a Pennsylvania-based expert in agriculture and biofuels with LECG LLC, a global consulting firm. “A lot of people thought that corn prices were going to continue to climb, and they were unable to cover their commodity positions.”
A wave of bankruptices and closures has followed, leaving idle corn ethanol plants and stalled projects across the Northwest.
Cascade Grain LLC, built a $200 million ethanol plant in Clatskanie last year and filed for bankruptcy protection in January. The plant ran for just six months before it was shut down.
In Longview, Wash., Northwest Renewables broke ground on a $100 million corn ethanol plant three years ago. Last week, the company announced the project, on hold for some time, would become a biomass plant with an uncertain timeline.
In Boardman, Pacific Ethanol’s plant continues to pump out 40 million gallons a year, despite filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in May. The plant uses mostly corn from the Midwest, said company spokesman Paul Koehler.
Now, however, the prospects might be getting brighter for ethanol. Oil prices have increased, and corn and natural gas prices, the two largest costs in the industry, have fallen.
“The outlook today is brighter than six or seven months ago,” Urbanchuk said. “The profitibility picture looks better.”
The long-term prognosis for the industry is for steady growth, mostly due to government environmental policies that ensure demand for ethanol, in particular, cellulosic ethanol. Unlike corn, biomass holds the promise of greater efficiency, and it doesn’t compete for food resources.
For 2009, federal mandates require production of 11 billion gallons of biofuel, of which 100 million gallons which must come from no-corn feedstock. By 2022, cellulosic ethanol must make up nearly half of the government’s required 36 billion gallons of biofuels.
“The industry responded quickly to demand, and now we’re seeing demand and supply move into balance,” said Matt Hartwig, a spokesman for the Washington-DC- based Renewable Fuels Association. “But there’s so much more growth that’s projected, those closed facilities may once again fire up as the economics of the industry improve.”
Implications for Oregon
In Oregon, the push for renewable fuel and energy has big economic implications. Many parties now eye Oregon’s forests for biomass, from wood pellet manufacturers to utility companies. And many others, from foresters to timber fellers to environmentalists, are pinning their hopes on a new, green market for Oregon wood.
Biofuel projects will likely bring new jobs into rural areas hard hit by years of mill closures. And they will put the state on the map in a growing industry.
“We don’t have the corn or the soy the Midwest does,” said Wallace, who works with different state departments in developing biofuels. “We need to get into (cellulosic) biofuels, if we’re going to play. I think we’re going to see more projects like this.”
In Boardman, ZeaChem’s project will create 75 construction jobs and 20 full-time jobs once the plant is running. If the company builds a commercial plant, dozens more jobs could be added.
“We’re excited about that potential,” said Gary Neal, general manager of the Port of Morrow. “There’s going to be a great utilization of the products and biproducts of the region, good paying jobs. We just see lots of pluses, and it’s good for the environment.”
Beyond jobs, developing local sources of fuel will mean more money stays in the state, Wallace said. In 2008, Oregonians spent $8 billion fueling up their cars and trucks. While some of that money goes toward taxes, most of the money spent on transportation fuels goes out of state.
Ultimately, finding uses for the state’s biomass will be good for the forests, said Mike Cloughesy, director of forestry for the Oregon Forest Resources Institute. The state has about 4.25 million acres capable of providing biomass by forest thinning projects, which would prevent wildfires.
“There is more than enough material to go around,” McCloughesy said. “Anything that makes more markets for biomass creates more opportunities for active forest management.”
Amy Hsuan, The Oregonian – http://www.oregonlive.com/business/index.ssf/2009/09/a_looking_for_a_biofuels_break.html