11 Companies Racing to Build U.S. Cellulosic Ethanol Plants

There are almost a dozen companies racing to build the first next-generation cellulosic ethanol plants in the United States over the next few years. The plants will be built all over the U.S. and will churn out biofuels made from waste, plant byproducts and woody energy crops. It’s no easy task. Not only do these companies have to build pilot and demo plants, but ultimately large-scale, commercialized refineries that can take years to construct and require hundreds of millions of investment dollars.

While biofuels have been getting a bad rap lately, President Bush’s Twenty in Ten Initiative aims to increase the use of renewable and alternative fuels in the transportation sector to the equivalent of 35 billion gallons of ethanol a year by 2017. These 11 companies are focusing on finding the right recipe to make the cellulosic ethanol production economically feasible. Good luck to them (per request from the comment section, we added in the tickers for the public companies):

[googlemaps http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?ie=UTF8&hl=en&s=AARTsJpaa1nqk3xOL7NlejvGN7AI_BhTWw&msa=0&msid=100024416568883817560.00044ec5904f61e2d8f5b&ll=42.032974,-93.164062&spn=45.39123,84.375&z=3&output=embed&w=480&h=350]

Verenium: The company is in the final stages of testing and evaluating its demo facility, which can produce 1.4 million gallons per year. Construction on the pilot plant began in February 2007. Japanese companies Marubeni and Tsukishima Kikai used Verenium’s technology to build a demo project that can produce 1.3 million liters (less than 350,000 gallons) per year in January 2007 in Osaka, Japan, with plans to scale it up to 4 million liters per year in 2008. The company is currently on track to start construction of a 30 million-gallon-per-year commercial U.S. plant in mid-2009. Verenium trades on the NASDAQ, ticker: VRNM.

Coskata: The company is currently producing cellulosic ethanol in its labs and plans to scale up a pilot project in Madison, Penn., to a 40,000-gallon-per-year demonstration facility that will start delivering ethanol by early 2009 and is projected to cost $25 million to build. Coskata says it’s working on a 100 million-gallon-per-year facility, in an undisclosed U.S. location, that it hopes will go online by early 2011. The startup has raised almost $30 million from Globespan Capital Partners, GM, Khosla Ventures, GreatPoint Ventures and Advanced Technology Ventures. Coskata’s technology first gasifies biomass into syngas and then adds proprietary microbes that turn the syngas into ethanol.

Range Fuels: Range Fuels has been testing its technology in pilot-scale units for the past seven years. The company began construction in November 207 of its first 20 million-gallon-per-year phase of a commercial ethanol plant in Soperton, Ga., with plans to finish sometime in 2009. The plant is supposed to scale up to 100 million gallons per year. The startup has raised over $130 million from Passport Capital, BlueMountain, Khosla Ventures, Leaf Clean Energy Company and Pacific Capital Group (with participation by the California Public Employee Retirement System.) Range Fuel’s technology uses a thermochemical process to turn biomass into synthetic gas and then fuel.

POET: POET is a longtime corn ethanol producers that will be using its existing infrastructure to move into cellulosic ethanol production. The company is expanding its 50 million-gallon-per-year corn-based ethanol facility in Emmetsburg, Iowa, to include a cellulosic plant. The entire plant will produce 125 million gallons per year, 25 million of those for cellulosic ethanol. Construction on the cellulosic ethanol plant is scheduled to start in 2009 and be done in 2011. The DOE selected POET to receive up to $80 million in funds for its cellulosic ethanol plant. The plant will convert corn cobs and fiber from the kernel into cellulosic ethanol.

DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol LLC: The joint venture plans to have its first pilot plant online by 2009 and its first full-scale commercial demonstration plant operational by 2012. A 50/50 JV between DuPont and Genencor, the companies plan to invest $70 million each over the next three years. The technology will use DuPont’s proprietary pretreatment and ethanologen technologies and Genencor’s enzymatic hydrolysis methods. The JV will initially target corn stover and sugar cane bagasse as feedstocks.

Mascoma: Mascoma and the University of Tennessee are jointly building a switchgrass-fed demo refinery in Monroe County, Tenn., that will produce 5 million gallons per year and will be operational in 2009. The company also started construction on a pilot plant in Rome, N.Y., in 2006. In addition, Mascoma is looking to build a commercial-scale biorefinery using wood as a feedstock, to be located in Michigan, and is working with Michigan State University and Michigan Technological University.

Mascoma has raised almost $90 million to date from a number of investors including: GM, Khosla Ventures, Flagship Ventures, General Catalyst Partners, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Vantage Point Venture Partners, Atlas Venture and Pinnacle Ventures. The company’s technology relies on microbes to convert cellulosic feedstocks into ethanol, and Coskata claims it will establish the country’s first plant to produce cellulosic ethanol using switchgrass.

ZeaChem: The company has a test facility at its headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., where it says it has successfully brewed its first liter of ethanol from poplar trees. ZeaChem is working with forest manager GreenWood Resources to build a 1.5 million gallons a year test facility near Portland, Ore. The startup received $4 million in funding last summer from Mohr Davidow Ventures. Firelake Capital is also an investor. The company’s technology converts fermentable sugars into acetate and then gasifies the remainder, tough lignin and all, into hydrogen before mixing the two streams in a reaction called hydrogenolysis to produce ethanol.

SunEthanol: The company says it aims to have a pilot plant in operation in 2009 and is reportedly also building a 2.5 million-gallon-per-year demonstration facility. Update: SunEthanol’s former CEO Jef Sharp tells us that the company is working with ICM to build the demo plant, and is also planning a commercial scale plant that a yet-undisclosed partner will build.

Investors include VeraSun, Battery Ventures, Camros Capital LLC and LongRiver Ventures. The U.S. Department of Energy recently awarded SunEthanol a $100,000 research grant. The company uses the “Q Microbe” for its “C3 process,” which does the ethanol conversion of hydrolysis and fermentation in one step.

BlueFire Ethanol: The company is working on a 3.1 million-gallon-per-year cellulosic ethanol facility that will be delivered in a joint effort with contractors MECS and Brinderson and located at a Lancaster, Calif., landfill. BlueFire is also working with the DOE on a second facility that will convert waste from landfills into roughly 17 million gallons of fuel-grade ethanol per year. BlueFire confirmed with us that that DOE plant is still on track.

The startup was awarded funding from the Department of Energy to construct its ethanol production facilities. BlueFire trades on the over-the-counter Bulletin Board market. The company converts the cellulose to sugars, ferments it and purifies the fermentation liquids into products. The company trades on OTC, ticker: BFRE.

Abengoa Bioenergy: Owned by Spanish engineering company Abengoa, the company opened a pilot plant in York, Neb., in October 2007, which cost some $35 million to build. Abengoa plans to spend $300 million to build a cellulosic ethanol production plant in Hugoton, Kan., which will produce 49 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol per year. The company also got a $76 million grant from the DOE to help fund a project in Colwich, Kansas, that the DOE said will produce 11.4 million gallons per year (we’re checking to see the latest updates on the DOE project).

Iogen: The Canadian company is planning on building a cellulosic ethanol refinery in Saskatchewan that has now entered the due diligence process. Iogen is one of six companies that could receive money from the DOE to build U.S. biorefinery plants. Iogen has proposed a plant in Shelley, Idaho, near Idaho Falls, that will produce 18 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol annually.

Update: An Iogen spokesperson says the company has “suspended” its plans to build a plant in Idaho, to focus on its Saskatchewan plant (we first read that news here). The Iogen spokesperson says the Idaho plant could be built in the future, but that the company has suspended focusing on that U.S. location and at this time is not actively pursuing that DOE funding. Our story in this news here.

Founded in the ’70s, the company has received public and private investment of over $130 million over the past 25 years, including investors Royal Dutch/Shell Group, Petro-Canada and Goldman Sachs. Iogen is working with Shell and Goldman Sachs to convert biomass into sugars using specialized enzymes; the sugars are then fermented and distilled to make cellulosic ethanol. Iogen is a privately held company.

Updated (here’s a few more):

SunOpta: We were a little hesitant to put SunOpta on the list as its continues to delay filing its financial statements, but it does have a long history in the cellulosic ethanol business. The company, based in Brampton, Ontario, said last year that it has several pilot facilities operational in the United States that are funded by the National Renewable Energy Laboratories. The company also plans to have commercial scale plants in the United States, funded by the DOE, with construction starting in 2008 and fully completed by 2009. Trades on the NASDAQ, ticker: STKL.

KL Process Design Group: The company opened what it says is the first wood-fiber cellulosic ethanol plant in January of this year near Upton, Wyo.

Cleantech Biofuels: The company, based in St. Louis, Mo., said in April that it is working with Hazen Research to start building the precommercial stages of a solid waste-to-ethanol project at Hazen’s facility in Golden, Colo. The company trades on OTC, ticker: CLTH.

American Energy Enterprises (AEEE): Here’s a company in Brookfield, Connecticut, that says it will open a cellulosic ethanol distillery by November 2009. In March the company said it plans to buy a mill in New Milford, Connecticut, to build and operate a 24 to 50 million gallon per year cellulosic ethanol distillery. AEEE Chairman Chris Brown tells us that the facility will eventually churn out 100 million gallons per year using a process called “dillute acid hydrolysis.” AEEE is working with SPEC Engineering and BEI to design and build the plant.

—- Any more? Contact us and we’ll add ’em in.