DuPont joins Tennessee initiative to build pilot project biorefinery

DuPont joins Tennessee initiative to build pilot project biorefinery

Posted: Monday, July 28, 2008 11:41 am
By: The Associated Press

The Messenger 07.29.08

Associated Press Writer
KNOXVILLE (AP) — DuPont Co. has joined a Tennessee initiative to build one of the first pilot project biorefineries in the United States for turning corn cobs and switchgrass, grown on Tennessee farms, into fuel.
Wednesday’s announcement by Gov. Phil Bredesen and DuPont officials marked a change in development partners for the University of Tennessee-managed project — a program to pioneer commercial processes for converting the cellulose — or woody stem fibers of nonfood plants and feedstock — into ethanol.
Initial partner Mascoma Corp. of Boston has been replaced by Delaware-based DuPont. That could expedite the refinery, but also cost it a $26 million grant the U.S. Department of Energy had awarded Mascoma, officials said.
In a joint statement, UT and Mascoma said simply they were unable “to come to mutually acceptable terms.”
UT officials said the grant was never a sure thing — negotiations were pending — and its loss would not impact the project, though the biorefinery discussed Wednesday will have a capacity of 250,000 gallons of ethanol per year rather than 5 million gallons initially envisioned.
Still, the state of Tennessee’s commitment remains the same. The state has pledged $70 million over five years to cultivating and converting switchgrass — a common perennial prairie grass — to fuel. That includes payments to farmers to grow it and $40.7 million to build the refinery.
DuPont and its venture partner Denmark-based Danisco AS promise a “substantial investment.”
UT Executive Vice President David Milhorn said Tennessee and DuPont-Danisco are “just much better aligned — technology wise, capability wise and philosophically from a business standpoint.
They will bring resources and capabilities to bear here that will allow us to accelerate the development of our ethanol program.”
DuPont and Danisco created their ethanol venture in May, with a $140 million three-year commitment “to develop and commercialize the leading low-cost technology solution” for the so-called next generation of biofuel produced from nonfood sources.
In an earnings report Tuesday, DuPont said it hoped to have its first pilot plant operational in the United States in 2009 — which is the Tennessee project’s goal — and hopes to have a commercial-scale demonstration facility running by 2012. DuPont-Danisco then plans to license its technology directly to ethanol producers.
As oil prices continue to soar over $100 a barrel, scientists around the world are racing to find commercially viable alternative energy sources to reduce U.S. dependence on petroleum-based fuels.
The Tennessee project is one of a handful in the United States that seeks to turn agricultural waste or “biomass” such as switchgrass, corn cobs, wheat straw and other fibers into fuel.
Corn-based ethanol has been criticized for displacing food crops and blamed for raising food prices.
But John Pierce, DuPont-Danisco team leader, praised it for “forming a basis for investment in a whole infrastructure we are going to move into with cellusolic-based ethanol. What we are talking about today is taking that next step.”
Tennessee estimates it has 1.5 million under-utilized agricultural acres that could be used to grow switchgrass, which Pierce said is very much like corn cobs from an ethanol-production standpoint.
Tennessee plans to start construction later this year on the biorefinery in Vonore, about 34 miles south of Knoxville. Sixteen farms within a 50-mile radius already are growing switchgrass to supply it.
“We hope by the fourth quarter of next year to be making the first ethanol,” Milhorn said.
Project officials say the smaller biorefinery will still be big enough to demonstrate and test the processes to move this form of ethanol from the laboratory into commercial production.
DuPont and Danisco’s division Genencor, one of the world’s foremost enzyme companies, partnered on the key technologies involved in a DuPont-Tate & Lyle plant that opened in nearby Loudon last year.
That plant makes “Bio-PDO (propanediol),” a corn-based polymer that can replace petroleum in fabrics, face creams, carpets and a variety of other products. At the opening, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said that project was “on the leading edge of a biotechnology revolution.”
Now comes Tennessee’s cellulosic ethanol project.
“At the end of the day we are talking about turning (a) … kind of low-end feedstock into a fuel you can burn,” Pierce said.
University of Tennessee Agriculture:


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