Milestone: commercial grade ethanol from wood and green waste

After months of frustrating delays, a chemical company announced Wednesday that it had produced commercial quantities of ethanol from wood waste and other nonfood vegetative matter, a long-sought goal that, if it can be expanded economically, has major implications for providing vehicle fuel and limiting greenhouse gas emissions…

The company, INEOS Bio…said it had produced the fuel at its $130 million Indian River BioEnergy Center in Vero Beach, Fla….The company said it was the first commercial-scale production of ethanol from cellulosic feedstock, but it did not say how much it had produced. Shipments will begin in August…

The process begins with wastes — wood and vegetative matter for now, municipal garbage later — and cooks it into a gas of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Bacteria eat the gas and excrete alcohol, which is then distilled. Successful production would eliminate some of the “food versus fuel” debate in the manufacturing of ethanol, which comes from corn…

The plant, which uses methane gas from a nearby landfill, has faced a variety of problems. One was getting the methane, which is a greenhouse gas if released unburned, to the plant’s boilers. (The plan is to eventually run the plant on garbage that now goes to landfills.) Another problem was its reliance on the electrical grid.

The plant usually generates more power than it needs — selling the surplus to the local utility — and is supposed to be able to operate independently. But when thunderstorms knocked out the power grid, the plant unexpectedly shut down and it took weeks to get it running again, said Mark Niederschulte, the chief operating officer of INEOS Bio…“We’ve had some painful do/undo loops,” he said…

The Department of Energy hailed the development as the first of a kind, and said it was made possible by research work the department had sponsored in recent years…

INEOS has a goal of eight million gallons a year.

If they can get up to consistent production of commercial-grade, commercial quantities of ethanol, a number of goals become practical. Replacing fossil fuels is the most obvious. But, even the process of producing fuel to be burned is freeing up land to produce more cellulosic products which absorb carbon while growing.

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