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Massachusetts company plans to build Florida's first ethanol plant

TALLAHASSEE — A Massachusetts company on Thursday announced plans to build Florida's first ethanol plant, and one of the first cellulosic ethanol plants in the nation.

Verenium plans to build a 36-million-gallon-a-year plant in Highlands County, northwest of Lake Okeechobee, fueling it with a fast-growing plant similar to sugarcane. The $250-million project relies on a pioneering technology developed by University of Florida scientists which unlocks the energy potential of plants other than ethanol's traditional feedstocks like sugar and corn.

"We're thrilled," said Lonnie Ingram, the University of Florida professor who led the research. "The university is just delighted with the achievements of Verenium, even more so because it's going to be in Florida, our home state."

Construction on the project is slated to begin this year, with production expected to begin in 2011. The feedstocks will be sweet sorghum and a crop that Verenium has dubbed "energy cane." Lykes Bros Inc. has agreed to grow the cane on 20,000 acres next to the plant. The project won a $7-million farm to fuel grant from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. It is expected to create 140 full-time jobs.

A handful of other cellulosic projects have been announced around the country, but Verenium, which already has a functioning pilot plant in Louisiana, is further along than other companies, Ingram said. The Cambridge, Mass., company is also planning projects in Alabama, Louisiana and Texas.

"This plant, the first of many we anticipate building in the years ahead, will help fulfill the U.S. government's mandate for advanced, sustainable bio­fuels to meet America's energy needs," said Carlos A. Riva, president and chief executive of Verenium.

• • •

Traditional ethanol production relies on the easily fermentable sugars found in sugar and corn. A yeast is added to ferment the sugars into alcohol, which is then further refined into fuel. Cellulosic takes advantage of the energy locked in the stalks and leaves of the plant.

"The hard part is breaking the sugars down," Ingram explained. "The starch is meant to come apart, and the stems and leaves were meant to stay together."

Nature designed the energy in corn and sugarcane to come apart easily into sugars, he said. Leaves, branches and stems also contain energy, but their sturdier construction makes them tougher to pull apart. The process used by Verenium uses steam and enzymes to break down the hardier fibrous portions of plants into sugars.

The next step is turning the sugars into alcohol. The simple sugars derived from corn and sugarcane — glucose and sucrose — were easily digested by yeast. The cellulosic sugars proved more complex.

That's where professor Ingram and his collaborators came in. They needed an organism that would easily consume all of the sugars. Ingram spliced together E. coli bacteria with two genes from a bacteria used to make tequila. The organism digested the other sugars.

• • •

Ingram has watched over the years as interest in ethanol waxed and waned. When gas prices soared, funding for research became more plentiful. When gas prices plunged, funding dried up.

Interest resurged in the last five years, fueled by efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, ween the country off of foreign fuels and keep gas prices low. Ethanol production in the United States soared, from 1,400-million gallons a year in 1998 to 6,500-million gallons a year in 2007, according to the Renewable Fuels Association, an industry lobbying group of which Verenium is a member. The number of U.S. ethanol plants more than doubled, from 50 in 1999 to 110 in 2007, according to the group's numbers. Production surged again last year following a federal law signed in late 2007 that called for the United States to use 36-billion gallons a year of renewable fuel by 2022.

The mandate spurred criticism that the United States would divert food crops from the dinner table to the gas tank. All but a fraction of U.S. ethanol comes from corn. The appeal of cellulosic ethanol is that it does not rely on food crops, and that it makes fuel out of parts of the plant that would be wasted.

Asjylyn Loder can be reached at aloder@sptimes.com or (813) 225-3117.

Massachusetts company plans to build Florida's first ethanol plant 01/15/09 [Last modified: Thursday, January 15, 2009 9:53pm]
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