Company Turns Trees Into Gasoline Replacement

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Flex-fuel Jeep at ZeaChem plant

Update: March 12. ZeaChem announced today that it is now producing commercial-grade cellulosic chemicals and ethanol at its Oregon plant.

The goal is to replace the petroleum that powers 96% of our vehicles with something more environmentally friendly, preferably produced domestically and renewable. To that end California has awarded $4.6 million to ZeaChem Inc. of Lakewood, Colorado, and Menlo Park, California, to build a pilot plant to push along the process to develop an advanced replacement for gasoline using woody biomass and agricultural residue.

Most of the ethanol currently in use comes from corn, which works just fine in most engines in low blends and actually provides a higher octane (though it has less energy as it takes a gallon and a half of ethanol to equal the energy of a gallon of gasoline). But corn ethanol, while functional and widely used in E10 blends around the country, doesn’t meet the sustainability criteria set out by some governments or environmental organizations, hence the push for solutions such as the one offered by ZeaChem. Working with a $12 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, ZeaChem aims to develop a “drop-in” biofuels that could replace not only gasoline, but diesel and jet fuel. The company expects to have diesel and jet fuel replacements ready this year while the gasoline replacement (a step beyond cellulosic ethanol) are due in 2015.

“With our process we have a 90% CO2 reduction compared to fossil fuels,” said Robert Walsh, Chief Commercial Officer at ZeaChem. The company’s patented fermentation process, currently in use in a 250,000 gallon-per-year demonstration plant in Oregon, takes local trees grown specifically for this purpose and converts them into cellulose-based acetic acid, ethyl acetate, ethanol, jet fuel and diesel. They can also use residue from sawmills and other cellulosic material leftover from agricultural crops. With less inputs for fertilizer and water than corn or other crops, the ZeaChem process strikes the right environmental balance for a petroleum replacement fuel.

ZeaChem has been funded by venture companies along with some investment by at least one oil company. They use a patented process that takes biomass (ZeaChem prefers hybrid poplar trees such as the ones growing adjacent to its Oregon plant or fast-growing eucalyptus trees as a feedstock for plants in the southern hemisphere) through a process of fermentation, esterification and hydrogenation.  The result is 135 gallons of ethanol from each ton (bone dry ton in their parlance) of biomass, a yield up to 40 times what can be pulled from corn, sugarcane and other cellulosic feedstocks.

Ethanol isn’t the only product ZeaChem can produce; its process can produce acetic acid and ethylene vinyl used in paints, coatings and consumer goods, cellulosic acetate used in adhesives, ethyl acetate for solvents, ethylene for plastics and ethylene glycol that’s used in polyester. If anything, all of these other potential uses for their output create a pull away from fuel production since the returns for other chemicals are higher than that offered in transportation fuels.

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Harvesting poplar trees for conversion to ethanol

Those other products may be critical to the company’s survival as the costs of cellulosic ethanol production remains high and the biggest challenge in this portion of the renewable fuels industry appears to be finding financing for production facilities. After financing hurdles, ethanol producers also face high feedstock costs and declining gasoline demand, creating negative margins that have idled many traditional ethanol plants and slowed cellulosic development.

But, as Walsh explains it, ZeaChem is committed to fuel production for the long term. They have support from government loans and incentives that prop up prices from the national renewable fuels standard (RFS2) and California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard.  They and a handful of other companies such as Poet-DSM, DuPont and Abengoa Bioenergy,  are on the leading edge of cellulosic ethanol production.  Walsh said ZeaChem expects to be at commercial scale (25 million gallons per year) for fuel production within a couple years and will follow with other chemical  products soon after.  They’ve already signed a memorandum of understanding with Chrysler outlining the two companies mutual goals of bringing cellulosic ethanol into vehicles consumers can buy, so expect to see some future Chrysler product getting a factory fill of ethanol, something like what the company did in supplying B5 (5% biodiesel) from the factory with its Jeep Liberty vehicles in the mid-2000s. Since liquid fuels are going to used in hundreds of millions of vehicles for decades, it’s a move that can’t come too soon.

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About Author: Michael Coates

is editor and publisher at Clean Fleet Report and an internationally recognized expert in the field of automotive environmental issues. He has been an automotive editor and writer for more than three decades. His media experience includes Petersen Publishing (now part of The Enthusiast Network), Green Car Journal, trade magazines, newspaper and television news reporting. He currently serves on the Board of the Western Automotive Journalists.

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