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Mascoma to breaks ground on cellulosic plant--a year late

One of the darlings of cellulosic ethanol is breaking ground on its plant.

Mascoma, which hopes to make cellulosic ethanol out of old wood chips and weed-like plants, will hold a groundbreaking ceremony on Monday for its first plant that is expected to start producing fuel by the end of 2008.

The plant, in Rome, N.Y., will be capable of churning out 500,000 gallons of fuel a year when fully operational. While that sounds like a lot, it's small for the fuel industry. (Americans consume about 150 billion gallons of gas a year.) Thus, the plant will serve as a showcase for Mascoma's technology. The company, a spin-out of Dartmouth College, exploits genetically enhanced microbes to turn vegetable matter into fuel. The process takes three stages: cellulose has to be separated for vegetable matter, cellulose then has to be converted to sugar, and the sugar then has to be converted to alcohol.

Mascoma hopes to combine those last two stages into one and thereby save time and money.

Back in 2006, the company said it had hoped to open the plant by the end of 2007, so they are about a year off. But it's an emerging field and the company may still be the first to commercially produce fuel from switchgrass, a wild grass that doesn't need much water or fertilizer. Another cellulosic firm, Range Fuels, broke ground earlier this year. Both are part of the microbe mafia that have received investments from Khosla Ventures.

The company received grants from the state of New York to build the plant. It also wants to build two commercial scale plants in Michigan and Tennessee. The Michigan plant will concentrate mostly on wood chips while the Tennessee plant will concentrate on switchgrass.