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BlueFire Ethanol bets on household trash

The dark horse in the cellulosic ethanol race is municipal solid waste, with the first plant set to begin construction within weeks.

BlueFire Ethanol expects to start construction of a plant within weeks that will convert landfill waste into the fuel ethanol.

CEO Arnie Klann on Thursday provided a timeline for the company's trash-to-ethanol projects at the Jeffries Global Clean Technologies conference, saying that there are two other larger plants already being pursued.

A component from an existing concentrated acid hydrolysis plant in Japan, which will be the same design used by BlueFire Ethanol. BlueFire Ethanol

He argued that making ethanol from municipal solid waste is more economical than making it from corn, as is done now, or from agricultural and forestry wastes. Its process can make 70 gallons per ton of waste stream going into its machines.

BlueFire Ethanol intends to locate its plants at landfills, which reduces the need to transport the feedstock. The ethanol will also be produced in urban areas where there is the demand for the fuel, which keeps transport costs down, he said.

"We can use waste streams that are not universally used by other proponents of cellulosic ethanol," Klann said.

The U.S. renewable fuel standard mandates that a significant portion of ethanol comes from cellulosic sources, like wood chips or agricultural residue like corn cobs or the leftover bagasse from sugar cane plantings.

The price of the feedstock is one of the biggest factors in ethanol's end price. Producers need to locate their facilities close to their feedstock source to be economical.

Cellulosic ethanol producers typically are either using thermochemical processes, specialty microorganisms, or enyzmes to break down feedstocks into sugars which are then fermented into ethanol.

By contrast, BlueFire Ethanol is using concentrated acid hydrolysis, where trash is sprayed with sulfuric acid, dunked into a bath, and then pressed. The resulting sugars are then fermented into ethanol, while the acid is separated and recouped for later use.

Competitor CleanTech Biofuels is also using acid hydrolysis in its pilot ethanol plant, which it expects to open later this year. Another company interested in trash as a feedstock is Coskata, which has a conversion process that uses high-pressure gasification and bacteria to produce sugars.

Klann said the company expects its first 3-million-gallon-per-year facility to be constructed this year in Lancaster, Calif.

It expects to complete applications for a Department of Energy loan this year to build a second plant, capable of making 17 million gallons per year, in an undisclosed place. The third plant on the drawing board would produce 55 million gallons annually.

After 2009, the company then intends to build more--at a pace between five and seven plants a year--in the Northeast and Southeast U.S., Klann said. He also anticipated international expansion with its modular plant design.

"When you are talking about waste streams, there are maybe 15 or 20 landfills in the U.S. that could sustain a 100- to 150-million-gallon-per-year ethanol plant," he said. "We're looking at those locations to build out, but the vast majority of landfills will handle that 17 million-gallon-per-year size."