Work on a new cellulosic ethanol refinery in Vonore, Tenn., will officially start Oct. 14. The pilot-scale refinery is Tennessee’s first venture into the newest alternative fuel. The project is backed by state funds as well as input from the University of Tennessee, which is partnering with the private sector on the project.
To celebrate the groundbreaking for the new plant, local farmer David Richesin will join Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen and use a tractor and planter to begin the construction process. Richesin is one of 16 local farmers under contract with the University of Tennessee to grow switchgrass—the special grass crop used to make the cellulosic ethanol.
The new cellulosic ethanol refinery will not only showcase a new type of alternative fuel, it will also showcase an innovative public-private partnership as well. The state provided $70.5 million for the University of Tennessee Biofuels Initiative, which is working with private partners DuPont Danisco to build the pilot-scale biorefinery in east Tennessee.
The refinery should begin producing cellulosic ethanol by the end of 2009, according to Kelly Tiller, director of external operations for the initiative and the project. To build the plant, the nonprofit University of Tennessee Research Foundation created a new for-profit company, Genera Energy LLC, charged with operating and constructing the plant. Genera is working in concert with DuPont Danisco—which is leasing the building from Genera under a long-term lease.
When the raw material is converted to ehtanol, the switchgrass or other biomass material is broken down to release sugars that can be fermented to make the ethanol. In addition to the sugar-rich cellulose parts of the plants, plant biomass also contains something called lignin, a tougher, fibrous part of the plant, according to Tiller. That lignin is produced as a co-product during the conversion process to make the ethanol.
For the refinery in Tennessee, current plans call for a commercial scale cellulosic ethanol facility to use a portion of the lignin material to fire a biomass boiler that will provide heat and steam to run the process, and potentially excess electricity that can be returned to the grid, Tiller said. The pilot scale biorefinery will also be able to use natural gas to run the facility, according to Tiller.
For more on cellulosic ethanol and how the states are looking to the alternative fuel, please see the October issue of State News magazine.