First Cellulosic Ethanol Biorefinery in the U.S. Opens

Verenium Cellulose Ethanol Plant photo

First Cellulosic Ethanol Plant in the US
The first demonstration-scale cellulosic ethanol plant in the United States is now open! The verenium biorefinery in Jennings, Louisiana, will produce 1.4 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol a year with agricultural waste left over after sugarcane production.

What are Second Generation Biofuels?
Ethanol made from cellulose, as opposed to ethanol made from corn, is a second generation biofuel. The difference, and it's an important one, is that second generation biofuels use non-food residual biomass like the stems, leaves, wood chips, and husks, or they use non-food crops that can be grown without high energy inputs, like switchgrass.

Biofuels Cellulosic Ethanol chart image

Verenium's Cellulosic Ethanol Goals
Verenium wants to create cellulosic ethanol at $2 per gallon, which right now would make it fairly competitive with corn ethanol and regular gasoline.

But this demonstration plant is just the beginning: Next year, Verenium wants to built several commercial plants that would each produce 20 to 30 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol yearly. That's still a fairly small drop in the bucket of gasoline consumption, but it would be much better than corn ethanol, and certainly better than fossil fuels.

Cellulose Ethanol, Corn Ethanol, Sugar Ethanol image

Cellulosic Ethanol Feedstock and Process
Verenium will use a combination of acid pretreatments, enzymes, and two types of bacteria to make ethanol from the plant matter--called bagasse--that's left over from processing sugarcane to make sugar.

It will also process a relative of the sugar cane called the energy cane. It produces less sugar, but more fiber and grows taller, increasing yield.

What to do with Corn Ethanol?
One question that remains is: What do we do with all that corn ethanol?

The best hope would be to convert corn ethanol biorefineries into second generation biofuel plants. That might or might not be possible on a technical level, but we suspect that on a political level it will be even harder. The farm lobby is very good at keeping subsidies forever. When food prices are low, they ask for subsidies, when prices are high (as now), they ask for more. So who knows if the fat corn ethanol subsidies will ever be repelled?

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