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Mascoma: Why all the different ethanol plants?

Cellulosic ethanol specialist start-up to build plants in Michigan, New York and Tennessee, with plans to experiment with different feedstocks.

For a start-up, Mascoma certainly has a lot of refineries in the works.

The cellulosic ethanol specialist already has plans for a demonstration plant in upstate New York capable of churning out 500,000 gallons a year, plus a plant in Michigan capable of 5 million gallons annually.

Just last week, it announced a deal with the University of Tennessee to open another 5-million-gallon plant in that state. Construction will begin in 2007 and become operational in 2009. (The New York and Michigan plants are supposed to go live in late 2007/early 2008 and 2008, respectively.)

That's three manufacturing facilities in three states for a company that's not actually producing anything right now. These plants will also represent a drop in the bucket of America's fuel consumption. The U.S. consumes about 400 million gallons of liquid fuel a day. Mascoma's annual output from these plants is thus equal to about 40 minutes of the national daily fuel budget.

Eventually, the plants will be expanded. Plans call for the Tennessee facility to grow to 10 times the 5-million-gallon level and the same applies to Michigan. Still, why build in different locations?

The reason is that the company wants to experiment with different feedstocks, according to a spokesperson. The Michigan plant will concentrate on making ethanol from wood chips leftover from timber operations, while the Tennessee plant will experiment with making it out of switchgrass. Switchgrass requires little fertilizer or water. The plant in that state will be capable of consuming 170 million tons of switchgrass a day.

The company is also looking at the "economic climates" of various areas of the U.S., factors such as state stimuli and subsidies. Tennessee will dedicate $8 million to encourage switchgrass production in the state. The state and the company will jointly build and operate the 5-million-gallon plant.

The total investment from Michigan and Mascoma in the facilities there could top $150 million, said Michael Shore, a spokesman from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, a state agency in July.

"The state of Michigan will be putting some significant dollars on the line. We certainly believe there's a race to be first and we want to be in it," Shore said then. Michigan has also wooed other green tech businesses to the state.

New York, meanwhile, gave the company $14.8 million in grants to erect the development plant.

Cellulosic ethanol involves making ethanol, an alcohol that can be used to power cars, from stalks, wood chips and other "waste" vegetable matter. It takes three stages. First, plant matter has to be broken up into, among other substances, cellulose and lignin. The cellulose is then converted to sugars, and the sugars are then converted to alcohol.

Mascoma, which grew out of research at Dartmouth College, has tapped microbial processes that can perform the cellulose-to-sugar and sugar-to-alcohol conversions with little external energy or cost. Several companies are also looking at ways to exploit lignin, a potential high source of energy.

The company's primary organism is Thermoanaerobacterium saccharolyticum, which breaks down plant material in a warm environment.