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Published on April 21st, 2010 | by Nick Chambers

14

ZeaChem’s Wood-to-Ultra Cheap Fuel Process Validated

Last Summer I brought you word of the potential for ethanol made from woody crops such as poplars with a yield of up to 2,000 gallons per acre… per acre. That’s enough fuel for something like 3 average cars per acre per year. On top of that, the process could result in ethanol cheaper than $1.00 per gallon without any government support.

And today ZeaChem, the company behind this groundbreaking process, announced that they have successfully completed a crucial step in converting wood to ethanol, proving that their core technology works and is commercially viable.

The ZeaChem process goes something like this (illustrated in the above diagram):

  • Woody biomass (e.g. hard- and softwood, grasses, corn stover, etc.) goes in one end.
  • That woody stuff gets chemically separated into two groups: sugars and “everything else.”
  • The sugars are sent to a fermentation tank where, using nothing but already existing and proven microbes, they are fermented into acetic acid. A key benefit of this type of fermentation over traditional fermentation with yeast that you see in corn ethanol facilities is that it produces no carbon dioxide. Yeast fermentation produces one molecule of CO2 for every molecule of ethanol. You can see the problem there.
  • The resulting acetic acid then goes through a process called esterification to convert it to ethyl acetate.
  • The residue of “everything else” that is left over from the initial chemical separation is then gasified and turned into hydrogen and other syngases.
  • The hydrogen is then combined with the ethyl acetate to make ethanol in a process called hydrogenation.
  • The other syngases are burned to generate the necessary steam and electricity needed to run almost the entire process from beginning to end.

All of the above chemical reactions and processes have been used in other industrial applications for a long time and so are quite robust. The only one of them that ZeaChem had yet to prove would work commercially was the esterification. Hence with the announcement today, that process has been successfully completed and the results certified by an independent 3rd party, Sulzer Chemtech.

What’s particularly interesting about the ZeaChem process is that, in-and-of-itself, ethyl acetate is a saleable product — accounting for a $2.2 billion dollar global market. So even without the final conversion to ethanol, or in the face of low ethanol demand, ZeaChem has an “out” to continue selling product. ZeaChem claims that their ethyl acetate is just as good as the stuff produced from crude oil, but that it can be made for much cheaper and is completely renewable.

ZeaChem is in the process of building a 250,000 gallon per year demonstration plant in Boardman, Oregon, which is scheduled to come online this year. The Boardman facility will be fed by woody biomass from a nearby hybrid poplar plantation run by GreenWood Resources.

Source: ZeaChem



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  • http://neilblanchard.vox.com/library/posts/ Neil Blanchard

    Hi Nick,

    Can this be done with scrap wood, or any kind of wood? Like all the dieing evergreens in the boreal forests?

    Sincerely, Neil

  • http://neilblanchard.vox.com/library/posts/ Neil Blanchard

    Hi Nick,

    Can this be done with scrap wood, or any kind of wood? Like all the dieing evergreens in the boreal forests?

    Sincerely, Neil

  • Brian

    A year and a half ago, Collins built a new, small diameter sawmill there to make lumber from the populars. http://www.collinsco.com/pacific-albus/ (looks very, very light, I like it)

    Its a Pretty cool idea. If they can get lumber from the trees, and fuel from the “leftovers” and small bits and chips, that is really efficient use of the tree farm.

  • Brian

    A year and a half ago, Collins built a new, small diameter sawmill there to make lumber from the populars. http://www.collinsco.com/pacific-albus/ (looks very, very light, I like it)

    Its a Pretty cool idea. If they can get lumber from the trees, and fuel from the “leftovers” and small bits and chips, that is really efficient use of the tree farm.

  • Charles Vismeg

    In my view we just not able to accept the idea that ICE vehicles are to be eventually phased out in an orderly manner, regardless what kind of fuel they need or we chose to formulate.

    Burning (oxidizing) any “fuel” is a no-solution to either climate change or dependence on “not-so-renewables-after-all-biofuels” approach to vehicular locomotion. Wood chips make terrific home building material and some other usages.

    Likely that some form of EV will be preferred as power plant tech is feverishly involved in the effort of a reliable, practical and commercially viable product (or method?) that ecologically acceptable.

    Naturally, for t the furure EV world, electrical infrastructure will need be beefed up and available everywhere. Then the real renewables will come really handy, as wind and solar, geoth. etc. Getting away from vehicles that need to oxidize fuel for power generation.

  • Charles Vismeg

    In my view we just not able to accept the idea that ICE vehicles are to be eventually phased out in an orderly manner, regardless what kind of fuel they need or we chose to formulate.

    Burning (oxidizing) any “fuel” is a no-solution to either climate change or dependence on “not-so-renewables-after-all-biofuels” approach to vehicular locomotion. Wood chips make terrific home building material and some other usages.

    Likely that some form of EV will be preferred as power plant tech is feverishly involved in the effort of a reliable, practical and commercially viable product (or method?) that ecologically acceptable.

    Naturally, for t the furure EV world, electrical infrastructure will need be beefed up and available everywhere. Then the real renewables will come really handy, as wind and solar, geoth. etc. Getting away from vehicles that need to oxidize fuel for power generation.

  • Art Gallery

    The only problem with any EV, or anything electic and cordless for that matter is energy density. The wood is really concentrated solar energy, produced from recombining CO2 into sugar, cellulose, etc through photosysnthesis. The only thing with higher energy densities than chemical bonds are nuclear bonds. I’m personally not wigged out over a car with nuke batteries, probably last the lifetime of the car.

  • Art Gallery

    The only problem with any EV, or anything electic and cordless for that matter is energy density. The wood is really concentrated solar energy, produced from recombining CO2 into sugar, cellulose, etc through photosysnthesis. The only thing with higher energy densities than chemical bonds are nuclear bonds. I’m personally not wigged out over a car with nuke batteries, probably last the lifetime of the car.

  • dustin

    combining different alternative sources of energy in different configurations, is the best way to change the global car market. say if you lived in Cali, solar panels on the roof makes sense… if you live in the bush, a hybrid of sorts with a wood gasifier would be very useful. Combining these systems allows Everyone to reduce oil consumption. people can use combined systems until such a time when a new MAIN fuel source and infrastructure is accessible. simple sh*t…

  • dustin

    combining different alternative sources of energy in different configurations, is the best way to change the global car market. say if you lived in Cali, solar panels on the roof makes sense… if you live in the bush, a hybrid of sorts with a wood gasifier would be very useful. Combining these systems allows Everyone to reduce oil consumption. people can use combined systems until such a time when a new MAIN fuel source and infrastructure is accessible. simple sh*t…

  • Jim Demers

    Is there any reason you can’t blend the ethyl acetate with gasoline and use that as a fuel? It would be less prone to absorbing water than an ethanol blend, and presumably it would be cheaper, since you’d be able to skip the hydrogenation step.

    • Nick Chambers

      Jim,

      Great question. Next time I talk with their CEO, I’ll keep that one in my pocket to ask him. With my chemistry background, I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t work… but then again, perhaps it has more to do with changing laws to allow blending of the ethyl acetate into gasoline?

  • Jim Demers

    Is there any reason you can’t blend the ethyl acetate with gasoline and use that as a fuel? It would be less prone to absorbing water than an ethanol blend, and presumably it would be cheaper, since you’d be able to skip the hydrogenation step.

    • Nick Chambers

      Jim,

      Great question. Next time I talk with their CEO, I’ll keep that one in my pocket to ask him. With my chemistry background, I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t work… but then again, perhaps it has more to do with changing laws to allow blending of the ethyl acetate into gasoline?

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