ST. JOSEPH | This country’s battle to curb oil imports is being plotted in high-tech laboratories and elite universities hunting for breakthroughs in alternative fuels.

But the frontlines in the effort to bring such fuels to market can be found in places like a working-class neighborhood in this river town, not far from where Pony Express riders saddled up to journey west.

Here in a brick and cinder-block building sit two rows of giant stainless steel kettles and equipment that are part of a $31 million experiment. The goal: Instead of using corn to make ethanol, see if it’s feasible to use cellulosic fiber, particularly six-foot tall stalks of switchgrass.

The St. Joseph cellulosic pilot plant is nearing completion. After testing over the summer, it will eventually produce about 250,000 gallons of ethanol a year. That’s enough to uncover any problems before larger commercial operations attempt to make billions of gallons more.

The plant joins a handful of other projects around the country racing to find the best way to produce cellulosic ethanol by figuring out the right technology, chemistry and cellulose feedstock.

ICM Inc. of Colwich, Kan., which is behind the St. Joseph operation, plans to be one of the winners. The company has had a hand in the design of more than half the corn ethanol plants in the country and believes it has a technically and economically feasible design for cellulosic plants.

“We don’t necessarily want to be the first,” said Jon Licklider, the pilot plant’s supervisor. “But we want to be the first to make it profitable.”

Biofuels, now mainly corn ethanol and biodiesel, are at a turning point. Cellulosic ethanol is a biofuel produced from wood, grasses, corn stalks and other non-edible parts of plants. The fiber would be a cheap and plentiful feedstock for ethanol.

“There’s plenty of this stuff around, and at a low price,” said Brooke Coleman of the Advanced Ethanol Council, an affiliate of the Renewable Fuels Association.

Corn ethanol this year will provide about 12 billion gallons of fuel, or enough to displace about 5 percent of gasoline demand. No other alternative fuel comes close.

But corn ethanol has been attacked for contributing to higher food prices. Its supporters say the charge is unfounded.

Regardless, the biofuels industry has long supported next-generation ethanol plants that would use cellulose.

The idea is getting more notice now that gasoline prices are approaching the record levels of 2008, when they briefly passed $4 a gallon. The national average price for a gallon of regular fuel is now $3.73 a gallon, according to AAA, up nearly $1 from a year ago.

President Barack Obama recently called for reducing crude oil imports by a third, in part by using more natural gas, producing more domestic oil and making more fuel-efficient vehicles. But he also supports using more biofuels and wants to build four advanced commercial-scale plants in the U.S.

“We have to discover and produce cleaner, renewable sources of energy,” the president said. “And we have to do it quickly.”

The attraction of using ingredients such as wood chips or corncobs to make ethanol is that such ingredients are cheap and plentiful. The federal government has been counting on cellulosic ethanol, and has mandated 16 billion gallons of production a year by 2022.

But without a commercial-scale plant making the fuel in the U.S., the federal Energy Information Administration has said production of cellulosic ethanol will probably not meet the mandate.

Now there’s a new urgency to find out if cellulosic ethanol can meet its potential. ICM’s St. Joseph plant, along with four other pilot projects also backed by the federal government, are aiming to find out.

“It is important, absolutely,” said Peter Gross, an analyst for the Energy Information Administration.

The science has for years been pretty much settled on how to make cellulosic ethanol, but that hasn’t been enough to prevent missteps.

Range Fuels tried to build a commercial-scale plant using wood chips in Soperton, Ga. But instead of relying on a more conventional method, the company chose a new process using gasification and catalytic reactions. That ended up cranking out more methanol and less ethanol.

There were “just too many ‘news’ to what they were doing,” said Sam Shelton, director of research at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Strategic Energy Institute.

The technology for making corn ethanol is basically the same as for ethyl alcohol, otherwise known as bootleg liquor.

But using cellulose is far more complicated. Just getting access to the material’s cellulose requires special treatment. The methods to be used by ICM work well in the laboratory, and now the company will see how they work in a larger setting.

“We will have a good feel by the end of the year,” said Doug Rivers, director of research and development for ICM.

Here’s how switchgrass will be turned into fuel at the ICM plant:

It will be cut into toothpick-sized pieces and then transported through pneumatic tubes to a pressurized vessel that uses heat and diluted acid to make the material accessible to further treatment. The mixture is sent to large covered kettles where enzymes are added to turn cellulose into sugar. The next step is a proprietary yeast that helps turn the mixture into ethanol.

The most problematic step is the pretreatment, which has to be especially precise to work.

Not surprisingly, the costs of commercial cellulosic ethanol plants are higher than for corn ethanol plants. That has already led to calls for more federal assistance.

“Plants cost a couple hundred million dollars and it’s tough to get a car loan in this economy,” said Coleman of the Advanced Ethanol Council. “No energy source in this country has ever gotten started without some kind of government subsidy.”

But what could be the most vexing problem is how to procure all the cellulose needed for the plants. John Ashworth, who studies bioenergy at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., concedes that long-term storage of the grasses and other cellulosic supplies could be troublesome, although it helps that they’re cheaper.

A corn ethanol plant might need to buy $75 worth of corn to produce $100 of ethanol. A cellulosic plant might only have to spend $15 to $30 on raw materials, although that advantage is partially offset by the other costs of turning cellulose into fuel.

The amount of feedstock that will be needed is staggering. One estimate says that a 50-million-gallon-per-year plant would need a million bales of switchgrass, each weighing 1,000 pounds.

Just how tricky it can get is shown with corncobs and stalks, which at least one company plans to use as cellulose. Bob Kelly, an agriculture business specialist in Buchanan County for the University of Missouri Agricultural Extension Service, said there is farmland near St. Joseph that is highly erodable and if farmers are to remain eligible for federal aid they must have ground cover.

Corn stover (the leaves and stalks) tends to provide 50 percent to 70 percent ground cover, but it’s not practical to harvest part of that stover and still leave the rest scattered evenly over a field, Kelly said.

ICM’s approach to supplying the 10 tons of feedstock the pilot plant will need daily is multifaceted. The plant is next to a corn ethanol facility that has a ready supply of corn fiber that can be used as a backup feedstock.

It is also working with farmers who are growing switchgrass — a perennial grass that takes a year or two to become established. Farmers are also planting a special variety of sorghum for cellulose that grows 20 feet tall.

To manage transportation costs, ICM is trying to source the crop within a 25-mile radius, although that could be extended to 50 miles

“I think there is a lot of optimism that in the next three years we will see a number of cellular plants using different approaches,” said Rivers.

source: kansascity

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