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ZeaChem CEO: Sound Cellulosic Biofuel Solutions Will Proceed Without U.S. Subsidies

Five times the yield of ethanol than an acre of corn, company claims

Aug 4, 2010

Cellulosic ethanol technologies that are well developed and rival the cost of fossil fuels will thrive in the U.S., with or without long-term subsidies, ZeaChem CEO Jim Imbler said.

"There are two types of players in the [ethanol] industry," said Imbler, whose Colorado-based firm makes fuel and chemicals out of insect stomach bugs — those who "need" subsidies to be profitable and those who can compete without them.

"Look, we need to do this on our own," Imbler said in a telephone interview with SolveClimate News. "If the government helps us get going — or there are subsidies out there — we'll take them. But you're not going to base your whole business model on the benevolence of government."

ZeaChem broke ground on its first demonstration facility in Boardman, Ore. in June. The biorefinery will eventually produce 250,000 gallons of cellulosic ethanol per year and will go online in 2011.

The company says it can compete with $50-a-barrel crude oil.

"At ZeaChem ... our goal is to compete against fossil fuels head on. And if we can produce and make things cheaper with equivalent performance, we'll win every day," said Imbler, who calls himself "an old oil guy" and was a former president of the Koch Petroleum Group, a leading fuels producer.

Carbon-Free Approach

ZeaChem does not produce ethanol directly. Rather, it converts sugar into a chemical building block called acetic acid by feeding it to microbes found in termite guts. The acid, a solvent used in making paint, reacts with hydrogen to break down hybrid poplar trees and similar cellulosic materials into fuels and feedstock for plastic and other chemicals.

"It's a very, very unique approach," said Imbler.

The standard method for making ethanol is to ferment sugars with yeast. The approach creates one molecule of heat-trapping carbon dioxide for every molecule of ethanol, while ZeaChem's process produces none. 

"When converting the sugars to acetic acid, we do not produce CO2," Imbler said. "We have an efficiency advantage over any product out there because we don't lose the carbons to carbon dioxide."

As a result, ZeaChem claims to deliver a 94 to 98 percent greenhouse gas savings compared to corn. The company also says its ethanol yields will be five times higher than an acre of corn, and considerably more than other cellulosic technologies.

Because it uses a known organism from nature, the company carries "much less technology risk" than competitors that are developing new bacteria and yeasts, said Imbler.

ZeaChem has raised around $40 million in largely venture capital cash from Globespan Capital Partners, PrairieGold Venture Partners, Mohr Davidow Ventures and Firelake Capital, as well as oil refiner Valero Energy, the country's top corn ethanol producer. 

The demo plant is being partially funded by a $25 million grant from the Department of Energy (DOE) through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Long-Term Clarity Missing

The Obama administration sparked ire from industry groups last month when it slashed the annual target for cellulosic biofuels without a pledge to help finance new refineries.

Comparing apples to apples - corn vs trees

Five times more ethanol per acre is a bunch of BS. What is omitted is that the trees take 3 years to mature. In contrast, corn feedstock matures every year. So in three years you get 3 times what is claimed for corn. It’s amazing how far companies will go to twist the facts, in order to make their technology look more superior to the competition.

Also omitted is the fact that corn ethanol is not just about first generation ethanol. From an acre of corn in three years, you also get 60 plus gallons of crude corn oil, and over 150 bushels of high protein livestock feed, which produces food. There’s also a potential to get up to 4 tons per acre per year of corn biomass, which translates into another 1200 gallons of cellulosic ethanol over a 3 year period. Corn actually comes out well ahead, if you look at the byproducts and the over-all economics.

The company should stop badmouthing the competition and integrate their technology into corn ethanol refineries and sources of onsite waste. There are synergies to be exploited. Fast growing tree crops might work just fine, but the company should not make false comparisons with corn ethanol. Use gallons per acre per year to compare feedstocks.

For further information see comments under the article:

“2,000 Gallons of Low-Cost Ethanol Per Acre Made From Wood”, 7-24-09 by Nick Chambers:


Full disclosure

Exactly how much money is the Corn lobby paying you to say that?

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