Photo courtesy of Poet
Poet Design and Construction crews construct a new weigh station at Poet's Liberty Project in Iowa.

As the U.S. Depts. of Energy and Agriculture pony up grants and loans to help fund new research and refineries to turn woody waste into cellulosic ethanol, private-sector companies are building the first commercial-scale cellulosic refineries in the nation and promoting their chemical processes for easy conversion from waste to sugar to fuel.

With more than a half-dozen cellulosic plants in development in the U.S., federal officials and private companies hope to prove wrong a recent report from the National Research Council that says the 2022 Federal Renewable Fuels Standard goal won’t be met unless innovative technologies are developed or policies change.

Cellulosic ethanol is created when chemical processes break down woody waste into cellulosic sugar, which then is converted into a usable ethanol fuel. Development of cellulosic ethanol has been in the experimental/demonstration stage for the past four years or so as companies have tapped into cheaper and more readily available corn-based ethanol. But as corn-based ethanol reached a peak—and demand for ethanol has grown—companies have broken ground on full-scale cellulosic plants.

“We had an experimenting phase going on, and a lot of folks are now poised to build the real, scalable cellulosic-ethanol plants,” says Ron Lamberty, the American Coalition for Ethanol’s senior vice president.

As the technology to produce cellulosic ethanol has caught up, Lamberty says the demand for more ethanol has spiked too, as the Environmental Protection Agency recently approved a gasoline blend with 15% ethanol—above the current 10%. “You finally have a situation where people who want to invest or finance cellulosic plants are confident there is going to be a market when they make this stuff,” he says.

“Unless we use something over the 10%, these [cellulosic] projects had nowhere to go,” Lamberty says of adding to, not replacing, corn ethanol. “Now we are building on top of what we have now.”

In Emmetsburg, Iowa, Poet, based in Sioux Falls, S.D., has already started construction—using one of its subsidiaries, Poet Design and Construction—on the first commercial-scale refinery for cornstalk waste, dubbed Project Liberty, says project director Jim Sturdevant. That job has the backing of a $105-million loan guarantee from DOE. Liberty should produce 25 million gallons per year of ethanol fuel by mid-2013. The company hopes to reach annual capacity of one billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol by working cellulosic production into all 27 of its grain-based plants.

Poet opened a pilot cellulosic plant in South Dakota in November 2008, and Sturdevant expects the engineering knowledge to transition nicely. “We want to roll this out across the country, not just the Corn Belt,” he says.

In Vero Beach, Fla., INEOS Bio JV, a Hampshire, England-based company, is working with New Plant Energy of Springfield, Ill., to build a $130-million waste-to-fuel plant that will produce eight million gallons of ethanol per year and 6 MW of renewable power from local yard, vegetative and household wastes. The partnership has hired London-based AMEC to build the plant. Production should start in mid-2012 at the Indian River BioEnergy Center. The project received a $50-million grant from DOE and a $75-million loan guarantee from USDA.

Coskata, Warrenville, Ill., landed a $250-million USDA loan guarantee for a Boligee, Ala., plant, to be built by Fagen Inc. of Granite Falls, Minn. A project nearly ready for construction, the plant will turn household waste into ethanol.

Planning is ongoing for Montreal-based Enerkem to use an $80-million loan guarantee for its Pontotoc, Miss., plant, which would turn trash and wood waste into ethanol. Further, Spanish-based Abengoa Bioenergy received permits in September to start work on a Hugoton, Kan., biorefinery, which will turn corn waste into 23 million gallons per year of cellulosic ethanol.

Other companies, including Renmatix, King of Prussia, Pa., are looking to gain market share with unique chemical processes. Renmatix is close to announcing its first commercial-scale facility; construction is slated to start next year, says Tim Brown, vice president of corporate strategy.

Since 2009, Renmatix has used its Plantrose process to produce sugars from woody waste at its Georgia-based test facility. “Our process has scaled 3,000 times in the last three years, so we’re very confident of our ability to scale up,” Brown says.

A new $40-million USDA grant will help Richard Gustafson, a chemical engineer at the University of Washington in Seattle, to look at growing poplar trees for biofuel use. The school has partnered with ZeaChem, based in Lakewood, Colo., which already has a pilot facility in Boardman, Ore., and another plant in Colorado.

“Poplars worldwide have enormous genetic diversity, and they can adapt well to any given site,” Gustafson says. “The sugars in poplars are pretty easy to get at.”

The Washington grant was one of four made in September to researchers in Washington, Iowa, Louisiana and Tennessee who hope to improve cellulosic ethanol production.

“We think that cellulosic ethanol is a 50-state solution to our nation’s energy campaign,” says Sturdevant. “There are 1.2 billion tons of available biomass in our nation every year, in every state. There is this great potential for that to lead to cellulosic ethanol in large, significant quantities.”