Abengoa opens US cellulosic ethanol plant in Kansas

Jessie Waldheim


Spain Abengoa opens cellulosic ethanol plant in KansasInterview article by Jessie Waldheim

HOUSTON (ICIS)–Abengoa on Friday held the grand opening for a 25m gal/year (95m litres/year) cellulosic ethanol plant in Hugoton, Kansas, the third commercial cellulosic facility to open in the US and one of three scheduled for opening this year alone.

The plant is the result of 10 years of research and development and features the company’s enzymatic hydrolysis technology, which extracts the fermentable sugars from the biomass.

“That’s just as big a deal as the start-up of our plant,” Chris Standlee, Abengoa executive vice president for global affairs, said in an interview leading up to the opening.

Only a few companies have developed enzymes to break down biomass into fermentable sugars, and Abengoa expects its enzyme is competitive in cost and efficiency.

“We feel like we’re in a very elite company,” Standlee said.

In addition, the enzymes Abengoa developed are able to be used with multiple feedstocks.

The Hugoton plant is using mostly corn stover and some other non-crop biomass – about 1,000 tons/day (907 tonnes/day) at full capacity. But the enzymes can also break down the organic portions of solid municipal waste.

“We have a tremendous opportunity for diversification of feedstocks, which allows us to expand outside the agricultural belt,” Standlee said.

The company also has worked to make its overall operations more cost-efficient. In the last four years, enzyme costs have dropped from $1.85/gal to 50 cents/gal, yeast costs have gone down 20% and yields have increased from 55 gal/ton (16 litres/tonne) of feedstocks to 75 gal/ton, Standlee said.

Current production cost is about $2.30/gal, which while not as low as conventional ethanol is competitive with gasoline costs, Standlee said.

“We think in a year we can improve efficiency even further and cut that cost from $2.30/gal to about $2/gal,” Standlee said.

That cost does not include credit the Hugoton plant receives for electricity generation.

While the extracted sugars can be fermented into ethanol, the remaining residual solids and lignin are a little more difficult for bio-producers to deal with.

Abengoa has opted to use the lignin to fuel boilers, which can generate enough electricity for the plant operations and enough to send 5-6 MW/year back into the local power grid.

“This facility is really just the first step in a new era in biotechnology in general. We have the technology we developed for Hugoton and we’re doing the simplest and best thing with it,” Standlee said. “Extract sugars, generate electricity – those things are very easy to do.”

But the company is continuing to look at other uses for the lignin and byproducts, although nothing specific has been announced yet, Standlee said.

The extracted sugars, a basic building block, can be used for high-value chemicals. Abengoa is considering a project to convert the sugars to n-butanol and looking at the possibility of making bottles from renewable plastics made from the sugars.

“So really this Hugoton plant is a major step in what it does today, but it is an even larger step in the development of biotechnology,” Standlee said.

Abengoa will be offering the enzymes, technology and processes it developed for the Hugoton plant for contract or licence in the growing cellulosic industry.

Standlee said he sees great potential in the co-location of cellulosic plants with first-generation ethanol plants in the US. Abengoa has plans to co-locate a cellulosic facility with one of its first-generation facilities in Brazil.

“I think we’ll see, depending on the consistency of policy support, we have an opportunity to see rather dramatic growth… just as we did in the first-generation industry in the mid-2000s,” Standlee said.

Abengoa received a $132.4m loan guarantee and a $97m grant through the US Department of Energy (DOE) to support construction of the facility.

Standlee added that policies like the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS), which mandates an increasing amount of ethanol and cellulosic ethanol each year, help encourage investment in these technologies by ensuring that there will be a market for them.

“This, I believe, is a banner year for cellulosic ethanol with three companies starting plants in the US,” Standlee said.

POET-DSM opened a 25m gal/year cellulosic ethanol plant in Iowa in September. DuPont has a 30m gal/year facility under construction also in Iowa, which is expected to open later this year.

INEOS’s 8m gal/year facility, which uses a gasification process that feeds carbon monoxide (CO) to micro-organisms for conversion to ethanol, was opened in late 2013.


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