January 27, 2011

Chicago Sun Times

Company developing fuel for future

In only a few short years, it could be fueling cars and trucks while producing 90 percent less greenhouse gas, providing energy security for the nation, and creating high-tech jobs in the Naperville area.

It’s a process that turns cellulose, the leftovers of agriculture and forestry, into ethanol. And because of a $250 million loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced last week, it will be a Warrenville-based company that brings the new technology to the mass market.

“It’s a radical thought that you could start with trash and be able to make cost-effective non-grain-based biofuels,” said Wes Bolsen, chief marketing officer and vice president of government affairs for Coskata. “Coskata can take in anything from wood chips or leftover agricultural waste or trash and convert that directly into a fuel which will compete head-to-head with gas.”

The company incorporated in 2006, its scientists working out of Argonne National Laboratory. In 2007, Coskata moved its national headquarters, including its research and development operation, to Warrenville, a decision based on the brain power available in the tech corridor. The company employs about 60 microbiologists, chemical engineers and other Ph.D.-level researchers.

Those scientists are working to take their trademarked FlexEthanol to commercial scale. Unlike regular ethanol, which makes up 85 percent of the E-85 fuel used in FlexFuel vehicles and is made almost entirely from corn, FlexEthanol can be produced from just about any biomass — the stalks of corn, the bark from trees, even garbage.

That’s important, according to Bolsen, because when it comes to corn, “You only have so much. This is feedstock flexible. It’s about being able to use multiple sources so you don’t pull on or demand any more of one source than is necessary.”

The flexibility of materials that go into the ethanol means putting less pressure on crops, which could otherwise result in higher food prices. It also means domestic farming, forestry and garbage hauling industries could produce enough source material to fuel up to 35 percent of America’s cars and trucks.

“Some scientists say it’s as high as 50 percent,” said Bolsen. “You’re looking at a significant impact. That would be global politics shifting if we displace 50 percent of our energy consumption.”To make the cellulosic ethanol, Coskata uses a gasifier to break chemical bones and convert raw waste materials into syngas.

Microorganisms then consume the carbon monoxide and hydrogen in the gas stream. The gas becomes liquid and the resulting ethanol is distilled from the solution.

That process, said Bolsen, solves some of the problems that have so far kept ethanol on the fringes of the fuel market.

“What we’re looking at is for every one unit of fossil energy going into production, you can get up to seven energy units going out,” said Bolsen. “With corn, you get about 1.6 units for every one fossil fuel energy unit.”

Coskata’s process for making cellulosic ethanol also consumes less water than regular gasoline production.

And, unlike gasoline, it keeps jobs local. “You are spurring economic growth,” said Bolsen. “We’re building refineries now off of renewable resources. We’re creating jobs that can’t be sent overseas, because you’re creating the energy from locally grown crops.”

Last week, the USDA announced it would back a $250 million loan to Coskata, the federal government’s biggest biofuels loan guarantee to date, to help fund the construction of a 55 million gallon a year production facility in Alabama.

The goal is to demonstrate the economic viability of cellulosic ethanol on a commercial scale — including the ability to produce a gallon of ethanol that is competitively priced with regular gasoline, already a possibility at its smaller scale Pennsylvania-based demonstration facility.

It’s an investment Bolsen said is in line with President Obama’s goal for U.S. energy independence outlined in Tuesday night’s State of the Union address.

“There are more subsidies going to oil than to biofuels today,” said Bolsen. “We need to look at why are we subsidizing the oil industry instead of domestic biofuel industries. It’s about setting the tone for what we need to do to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.”

Coskata’s decision to build in Alabama was a matter of readiness based on the availability of forestry waste from the southeast’s paper milling industry. But the Warrenville headquarters, said Bolsen, has already doubled in size since it moved in, and the company will continue to add more engineers as it expands.

More importantly, the Alabama factory will become a template, Bolsen hopes, for how future FlexEthanol plants can be built around the country.

“The next step will be corn stalks in Illinois,” said Bolsen. “Or sugar cane in Florida, or municipal waste from the city of Chicago.”