Georgia biofuel plant open for business

Range Fuels, which uses a process that simultaneously produces ethanol and methanol from wood chips, says it's ready to sell biodiesel and ethanol for cars on a large scale.

The Range Fuels Soperton, Ga., plant shortly after construction for it began in 2007. Range Fuels

An energy plant in Soperton, Ga., has perfected a process for commercialization that can produce both biodiesel and ethanol from non-food biomass.

Range Fuels announced Wednesday it has a commercially viable cellulosic biofuel plant. It yields methanol that can be made into biodiesel, as well as ethanol and other gases.

The first phase of the process consists of using heat and pressure to convert non-food biomass--currently Range Fuels is using wood waste from nearby timber plants--into a synthetic gas. That syngas, which the company says is made up of hydrogen and carbon monoxide, is then put through a second process that includes a "proprietary catalyst" to produce alcohols. Those alcohols are then directed at the plant to be made into ethanol or biodiesel fuel for vehicles.

In addition to the wood waste it has already been working off of, Range Fuels said it's also experimenting with using miscanthus and switchgrass as its starting biomass.

It's not an instance of scientific breakthrough with commercialization on a distant horizon. The Georgia plant will be ready to produce and sell cellulosic biodiesel and ethanol for use in vehicles on a commercial scale by the third quarter of this year, Range Fuels said in a statement.

The plant has permits that would ultimately allow the facility to expand enough to produce 100 million gallons of biofuels annually. Range Fuels said construction beginning next year will allow it to initially ramp up to 60 million gallons per year.

The success is a result of both private and U.S. taxpayer investment.

In March, Range Fuels was granted a loan note guarantee for $80 million by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in conjunction with the USDA Office of Rural Development, AgSouth Farm Credit, and the Agriculture Council of America (ACA). The loan is intended to cover the first two phases of the company's commercial construction from its existing process for converting biomass into biofuels.

Range Fuels has also benefited from Khosla Ventures investment, as well as investment from the Morgan Stanley Capital Group. Green-tech venture capitalist Vinod Khosla himself touted his belief in the company's viability, and cellulosic biofuels in general, in a 2007 CNET interview.

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