Plant to convert trash to ethanol
An Irvine company gets a federal grant to turn garden, wood and paper
waste into fuel.
By Elizabeth Douglass, Times Staff Writer
March 1, 2007
Tons of trash at a Riverside County landfill may be headed to the fuel
pump with the help of a $40-million federal grant awarded Wednesday.
BlueFire Ethanol Inc. of Irvine, which proposed the California
waste-to-ethanol project, was among six companies to win $385 million
from the Energy Department as part of President Bush's push to cut
gasoline consumption by 20% over the next decade.
For BlueFire, the grant represents validation that its technology can
work, and provides crucial seed money to launch the company's
"It is especially exciting that we are looking to what the industry
calls 'trash to cash,' taking our most devalued resource, waste, and
converting it into our most valued resource, fuel that displaces oil,"
said Alexander Karsner, assistant secretary for energy efficiency and
renewable energy at the U.S. Department of Energy.
Before the first gallon of ethanol streams out of the plant, BlueFire
must finalize terms of the Energy Department funding, win project
approval from county officials, collect $70 million more in funding and
go through 24 months of construction.
But Chief Executive Arnold Klann is optimistic. He hopes that the
landfill ethanol plant can go into operation by the end of 2009,
transforming 700 tons of garden, wood and paper waste into 19 million
gallons a year of ethanol that would then be blended into California
"This project is one of many to come," Klann said. BlueFire, he added,
also was talking with government officials about similar projects at
landfills in Orange and Los Angeles counties.
BlueFire's project and the others that won federal funding Wednesday
would be the nation's first step toward large-scale production of
so-called cellulosic ethanol, which is made from plant material. Experts
believe that next-generation ethanol production holds more promise and
fewer pitfalls than today's ethanol, which in this country is made
primarily from corn kernels.
"These bio-refineries will play a critical role in helping to bring
cellulosic ethanol to market, and teaching us how we can produce it in a
more cost-effective manner," Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said.
Bodman's department more than doubled the amount it planned to spend in
the next four years backing bio-refineries — to $385 million from $160
million — "to front-end some funding now, so that we could all reap the
benefits of the president's vision sooner."
Bodman's grants must still pass muster with Congress, which has to
approve the Energy Department's budget.
BlueFire will use a patented sulfuric acid process at its proposed plant
to tease out the needed sugars from the landfill biomass, then use
regular fermentation to get ethanol. Klann said this "very simple
process" could produce ethanol at a cost of $1 a gallon — well below
estimates from rival cellulosic technologies.
Waste Management, operator of the El Sobrante landfill in Corona, is one
of BlueFire's partners on the project. Others include California fuel
distributor Petro-Diamond, MECS Inc., NAES and JGC Corp., a Japanese
company that has made ethanol using BlueFire's technology for several years.
The other five grant winners would make ethanol using a variety of
methods. They are: Alico Inc., which plans a Florida plant that would
gasify citrus peels and yard and other waste, $33 million; Abengoa
Bioenergy Biomass of Kansas, which would use a heat and chemical process
on wheat straw and switch grass, $76 million; Broin Cos., which would
use enzymes to process corn cobs and stalks in Iowa, $80 million; Iogen
Biorefinery Partners, which would use specialty enzymes on wheat and
barley straw, $80 million; and Range Fuels Inc., which would gasify wood
residue in a Georgia facility, $76 million.