DOE granted funding for three small-scale cellulosic biorefineries that will use switch grass, corn cobs and corn stover as the raw material for ethanol and other value-added products.
Photo courtesy of National Renewable Energy Laboratory

A rural community biorefinery -- reportedly one of the first in the United States to utilize cellulose sources such as switch grass, corn cobs and corn stover at raw material levels of up to 30 percent -- is one step closer to reality following a $30 million grant to Ecofin LLC from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The cellulose will be converted to ethanol and other value-added products. The plant will be located in Springfield, Ky., and is estimated to employ 93 people when operating at full capacity. The grant was part of three announced by DOE, which also included grants for small-scale cellulosic biorefinery sites in Old Town, Maine, and Vonore, Tenn.

"Cellulosic ethanol utilizes raw materials which are readily available and which alleviate the current demand for grain for ethanol production. With commodity prices reaching an all-time high and with ethanol production forecast to account for 30 percent of the U.S. corn harvest by 2010, we must focus our attention on a sustainable path to alternative energies, " said Dr. Pearse Lyons, president and founder of Alltech. Ecofin LLC is an affiliate of Alltech Inc., Nicholasville, Ky.

In addition to the DOE grant, the project has received an incentive valued at up to $8 million from the Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority (KEDFA), Frankfort, Ky.

The biorefinery is expected to have an impact on Kentucky's agricultural production by housing dairy and beef cattle to be branded under the Kentucky Proud label. According to involved parties, such actions could be a significant step toward addressing Kentucky's $250 million milk deficit, and this concept has already drawn interest from the Netherlands, Ireland, South Africa and China.

The facility will also have the capability to produce algae, a plant that needs little besides sunlight and carbon dioxide. According to National Geographic, algae can theoretically produce 5,000 gallons of biofuel per acre per year, whereas corn can produce 400 gallons per acre. Additionally, algae can absorb up to 450 tons of carbon dioxide per acre when grown commercially.

"The Ecofin biorefinery will help pioneer the next generation of non-food based biofuels that will power our cars and trucks and help meet President Bush's goal to stop greenhouse gas emissions growth by 2025," Secretary Samuel Bodman, U.S. Department of Energy said. "Sustained investments in cellulosic fuels made from novel solid-state enzyme complexes and other agricultural waste will strengthen our nation's energy security by reducing our dependence on foreign oil."

As part of the project's research component, Ecofin will coordinate R&D activities with the University of Kentucky and the University of Cincinnati. Researchers will work to identify and address process improvements, develop economically and environmentally-sound technologies, as well as use process simulation to reduce raw material costs and optimize energy utilization.