Chrysler teams with cellulosic-ethanol firm ZeaChem

Seeking to boost its activity in renewable fuels, Chrysler is partnering with biofuels and chemicals start-up ZeaChem to speed adoption of cellulosic ethanol.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
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Chrysler and ZeaChem today announced a deal meant to promote cellulosic ethanol and spiff up the automaker's green credentials.

The two companies have a memorandum of understanding to accelerate development of ethanol made from non-food sources. Through a partnership, Chrysler intends to "strengthen the credibility" of cellulosic ethanol with regulators, according to a statement.

ZeaChem's demonstration facility in Oregon this fall will turn woody biomass into ethanol and other chemicals.
ZeaChem's demonstration facility in Oregon this fall will turn woody biomass into ethanol and other chemicals. ZeaChem

Automakers are expected to announce more stringent fuel economy standards with better engine efficiency, hybrids, and electric vehicles. But biofuels remain part of the country's efforts to reduce dependence on oil.

ZeaChem has a process that uses microbes to convert woody biomass into ethanol and other chemicals. In an interview, CEO James Imbler said the focus of the Chrysler relationship will be pushing the case for cellulosic ethanol with regulators, though there are other possibilities, such as an agreement to buy ethanol from ZeaChem.

In addition to ethanol, automakers can become customers for plant-based chemicals, such as plastics used for dashboards or cupholders, he added. "We can green up the fuel but we can also green up the car," he said.

Chrysler already makes cars which can run on e85, which is a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. Now nearly all ethanol in the U.S. is made from corn and used as an additive to gasoline.

As a whole, the cellulosic-ethanol industry has not been able to produce fuel or chemicals from non-food sources as rapidly as the industry had promised. Cellulosic ethanol is being challenged by so-called advanced biofuels which use other processes to make gasoline or diesel equivalents.

ZeaChem is in the process of building a demonstration facility in Oregon which this fall will start converting wood chips from a strain of poplar tree and wheat straw into ethanol and other chemicals. Its plan is to secure funding for a commercial-scale facility at the same site at the end of this year, which would take two years to build, Imbler said.

Having the ability to make a range of chemicals from the same plant at lower than fossil fuel prices will allow it to not only supply fuels, but also plastics for consumer products, such as packaging, he added. "At the end of the day, it'll be the consumer companies that drive the industry forward because if you have a fossil fuel conversion process, you don't necessarily want to change," he said.