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Three Advanced Ethanol Projects Move Ahead

Fuel From Waste: Companies using diverse feedstocks move toward commercialization

by Melody M. Bomgardner
December 10, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 50

Credit: LanzaTech
LanzaTech makes ethanol from waste gas at Baosteel, near Shanghai.
This is a photo of LanzaTech’s ethanol pilot at the Baosteel plant outside Shanghai.
Credit: LanzaTech
LanzaTech makes ethanol from waste gas at Baosteel, near Shanghai.

Big investments in commercial-scale ethanol facilities are moving forward, a trio of major firms recently announced. The action indicates confidence among members of the fledgling waste-based fuel industry in their prospects for success.

DuPont has broken ground on its first large facility for cellulosic ethanol made from the leaves and stalks of corn. The plant, when fully operational, will produce 30 million gal of ethanol per year. The company says it plans to license the technology behind its field-to-fuel system to other firms interested in making the advanced biofuel.

The facility, which will cost more than $200 million to build, is expected to be completed in mid-2014. “By leveraging DuPont Pioneer corn production expertise and designing an integrated technology platform, we’ve built an affordable and sustainable entry point into this new industry,” says James C. Collins Jr., president of DuPont Industrial Biosciences.

Also planning a commercial facility is LanzaTech, which recently completed a 100,000-gal-per-year ethanol trial project in China. Rather than starting with biomass like DuPont, LanzaTech uses waste gas from steel manufacturing as its feedstock. The company and its joint-venture partner, China’s Baosteel, now plan to build a full-scale facility in 2013.

Both LanzaTech and DuPont rely on microbial fermentation to produce ethanol from waste materials. In contrast, Fulcrum BioEnergy uses gasification followed by catalysis to produce the fuel from municipal solid waste. Fulcrum says it has amassed $175 million in financing to fund construction of its first plant, outside Reno, Nev. The firm has withdrawn plans for an initial public offering of stock, calling the IPO market “challenging.”

In addition, Fulcrum says it has improved its plant design and process and now expects to produce ethanol for less than 75 cents per gal, down from an earlier estimate of $1.25 per gal.

Companies should not promise cheap ethanol too soon, warns Erik Hoover, an analyst at Cleantech Data. “A certain amount of experimental or proof-of-concept construction has to happen, but it’s not going to produce inexpensive ethanol for a long time.” The different approaches to making the fuel show innovation is still happening, Hoover adds, and when the successful ones are optimized, “the industry will have a lot of value.”



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