Cellulosic ethanol plant to open next year

Range Fuels says it will be the first to produce the alternative fuel on a commercial scale.

The race is on to try to open the first large-scale cellulosic ethanol plant.

Range Fuels on Monday is expected to announce that it has received a permit to build an ethanol production plant in rural Georgia that uses wood chips as its feedstock. It plans to break ground on the plant this summer.

By next year, the company intends to have a facility capable of creating 20 million gallons of ethanol per year. The site in Treutlen County, Ga., has received a permit to produce 100 million gallons per year, and Range Fuels expects to eventually reach that production amount, according to company CEO Mitch Mandich.

"A lot of people are talking about 2009, or 10 or 11--even Secretary of Energy (Samuel) Bodman will say cellulosic ethanol is five years away," Mandich said. "We think by the time we enter production, we'll be the first, so the race is on between us and some competitors."

Several companies are pursuing techniques to make ethanol out of plants other than corn, which is how ethanol is made today in the United States. Cellulosic ethanol processes convert plant wastes, like wood chips and grasses, to ethanol.

Range Fuels uses a thermal chemical process that turns the wood material into a synthetic gas that is then mixed with a catalyst to make ethanol.

Mandich said his company's process will be less expensive than enzymatic approaches by which specially designed chemicals ferment the biomass to make ethanol. The company currently has four pilot facilities.

At its Georgia facility, Range Fuels intends to buy unusable material left after logging Georgia pine forests--about 25 percent of harvests is typically left behind as waste, Mandich said.

The cost of the plant at a capacity of 100 million gallons per year will be more than $150 million, Mandich said, without giving a specific sum. A multiyear, $76 million Department of Energy grant to Range Fuels is part of the financing.

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