Up Close And Personal With Coskata’s New Flex Ethanol Plant

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Pennsylvania is beautiful this time of year, but I missed most of it since I made the 400+ mile drive mostly in the dark. It took eight hours of dodging speeding semi-trucks and going through many miles of tunnels, but I finally made it to the Westinghouse Plasma Center in Madison, PA. In case you’re asking, yes, the same Westinghouse that makes flat screen televisions (among other nifty tech stuff).

The Coskata semi-commercial flexible ethanol plant, dubbed “Lighthouse”, is located here. This facility is essentially a working scale model of a full size ethanol plant, and the processes and technology here can one day soon be scaled up to produce as much as a 100 million gallons of flex ethanol annually. The important word here is flexible, because unlike other ethanol products, the Coskata process can use just about any carbon matter to produce ethanol. This means the very garbage filling our dumps may one day instead fill our cars.

How does it work?

The Coskata process uses old technology and even older micro-organisms to transfer any carbon matter into E85 ethanol. That means plants, food waste, wood chips, even municipal waste can be broken down and turned into fuel for the future. Sounds very magical, doesn’t it? Well, it is, and it isn’t.

From grass to gas to bugs to gas again.

It works like this. The Coskata plant takes whatever feedstock it has on hand, and dumps it into a gassifier. For our tour, they were using ordinary wood chips that many people use to heat their homes. Using a Westinghouse Plasma gasification unit (hence why they are on the Westinghouse property) the carbon matter is then vaporized. These are NASA-grade plasma units that can reach temperatures of around 12,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Can you say sizzle?

What is so unique about this process is that it can use just about anything, although energy returns are different based on what feedstock goes in. But according to Bill Roe, CEO of Coskata, this is what makes their process so special, “You can put a plant anywhere and make local fuel, local jobs, based on what is available locally.” All that is left over from the gasification process is some slag (pictured below) which can be ground up and used as filler for construction projects.

Slag is surprisingly pretty

From there, the carbon vapors move into a “bio-reactor.” Here, anaerobic micro-organisms licensed from the Oklahoma Biofuels Consortium start munching away at the carbon and pooping out ethanol fuel, which is then recovered and is usable. Those clostridium bacteria have been modified and essentially put on steroids to accomplish the process super-efficiently. It takes “just minutes” for the feedstock to become usable fuel, and goes from temperatures around 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit during gasification to about 80 degrees during the recovery process.

Coskata CEO Bill Roe in front of one of the “bio-reactors”

Bringing it to market

This is all very important to the biofuels industry, which as of late has come under heavy criticism for not being green or renewable enough. It seems like people have a problem burning perfectly good food for fuel (I can’t blame them). The Coskata process, if it works as well as they say (and they were very convincing) would mean that local fuel plants could be tailored to a specific region. New York City might make fuel from garbage, while a plant in the Southeast (where the first full scale facility is slated to be built sometime around 2012) might use woodchips. Coskata also claims to be able to produce 100 gallons of ethanol per dry ton of biomass. For comparisons sake, corn stovers deliver about 70 gallons per dry ton, which would make Coskata’s cellulosic ethanol more competitively priced.

This 500 pound bag of wood chips is good for about 25 gallons of ethanol, or one full tank in my truck

Coskata is banking on the fact that Americans are clearly ready for an alternative to petrol, but don’t expect to see a Coskata ethanol gas station pop up near you anytime soon. Coskata is more interested in licensing their technology to other companies, and encouraging start-up ethanol plants across the nation. CMO of Coskata Wes Bolen expects that 4-6 such plants could be built fairly quickly, because the Coskata Lighthouse plant is minimal scale engineering project of a full scale facility.

Basically, everything at lighthouse can be scaled up to a full size facility without any more fuss. The Lighthouse plant is in fact modular, and will be moved when Coskata’s contract with Westinghouse expires. Currently, Lighthouse runs 24/7 and can produce 40,000 gallons of ethanol. It runs this long to ensure the robustness of the equipment and to prove it is ready to be commercially scaled. The first plant will be “somewhere” in the Southeast and will burn wood chips and woody biomass.

But Coskata CEO Bill Roe sees the future of ethanol coming from “purpose grown energy crops”—plants like switchgrass, a hardy plant that delivers excellent energy yield. “Woody biomass is a start, but there isn’t enough woodstock to fuel all our cars,” Roe says. Besides, there is something decidedly un-green about chopping down trees to make fuel for our vehicles. But it is an important start, especially since construction and timber companies have been hard hit in the current economic climate. An ethanol plant of this type could feasibly be built side-by-side with a lumber operation, and the excess woody biomass could be converted straight to fuel until purpose-grown energy crops come into their own.

Partnering with GM

Also worth mentioning is GM’s participation in the Coskata project. GM currently has 17 different models that are flex fuel capable here in the states. GM vetted 16 operations before deciding to fund Coskata (an undisclosed amount) and in return Coskata is sending them ethanol to test and tune with. GM’s participation “legitimized” the operation in a sense, bringing Coskata into the limelight. GM’s Vehicle Emissions Director Bob Bibak was on hand to provide some interesting tidbits about ethanol use. For example, he stated that 96% of cars still use petroleum, and 90% of flex fuel vehicle owners don’t have an ethanol station in their town. 50% don’t even have one in their county (there are only two such stations I know of in CT, and 2,200 nationwide).

There was a flex fuel HHR there too, but I like trucks

It is too soon to pass a final verdict on the Coskata experiment, but as far as a fuel that isn’t petroleum, it sounds promising. Just like every alternative, there are downsides to ethanol. For one, it takes 25-30% more fuel to go the same distance as gasoline, and there is still some debate as to the environmental benefits of ethanol (depending on who you ask). But as far as alternative fuels that are ready for market, Coskata’s process seems to have a lot going for it, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear more from them in the future. Make sure to check out Coskata’s website too.

The ride home was a lot calmer, by the way. I was able to enjoy the scenic beauty that is Pennsylvania in the fall. I absolutely recommend an extended drive along I-70, despite the heinous tolls. I’m a big fan of trees, especially multi-colored ones, and there are fewer and fewer such vistas left these days, so do yourself a favor and go for a drive, even if you’re still using dead dino juice. You just can’t appreciate such sights from the seat of a jet plane.

Christopher DeMorro

A writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to HEMIs, can be found wrenching or writing- or else, he's running, because he's one of those crazy people who gets enjoyment from running insane distances.