One of the first companies to bring a plant online is KL Process Design Group, in Wyoming. With experience making corn ethanol plants, it has built a small plant meant to use pine wastes from a nearby national forest. The company is still testing its production line but hopes to begin commercial sales of ethanol late this year.
“We’re still learning and tweaking, and hoping for a little bit of capital infusion,” said Tom Slunecka, a vice president of the company.
Range Fuels, of Denver, is building a commercial-scale plant in Soperton, Ga., with help from the Energy Department. That plant will take pine chips and turn them into ethanol, with commercial sales expected by late 2009 or 2010.
Some companies want to use garbage. On Friday, a company called Fulcrum BioEnergy said it would start construction later this year on a $120 million plant at the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center, in Storey County, Nev., to make 10.5 million gallons of ethanol a year from 90,000 tons of garbage. Operation would begin in early 2010.
In Montreal, another firm, Enerkem, plans to use arsenic-contaminated utility poles from the provincial electric company. On Wednesday, the Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission approved a plan by BlueFire Ethanol to build a $30 million garbage-to-ethanol plant on 10 acres next to a landfill in Lancaster, Calif.; construction will start soon, the company said.
A handful of small companies has long made a diesel replacement from waste oil, or sold kits to individuals to do the same. One company in Carthage, Mo., even turns turkey guts into fuel. The goal of the emerging waste-to-fuel industry is more elaborate, however: to take bulky, solid feedstocks and transform them into high-grade motor fuel.
History provides plenty of warning that it will not be easy. A company called Verenium in Lafayette, La., has cut ribbons three times in one locale since 1998 on plants that would supposedly make fuel from sugar cane waste, and has yet to sell a drop because of problems converting laboratory success into smooth, commercial-scale operation.
A bigger operation, Iogen, has been running a demonstration plant in Ottawa since 2004 that can turn wheat straw into ethanol. It was expected to build a plant in Idaho but has suspended work to focus attention on a plant in Saskatchewan. “It would be our view that there are substantial challenges in scaling up a big new biochemical process,” said Brian Foody, the president.
The Energy Department early last year picked six projects as most likely to succeed, and offered each of them tens of millions of dollars. Iogen’s Idaho project was among them; so was a plant in Kansas proposed by a Florida company, Alico, that has also been abandoned. Still, increasing interest from big companies — ones with a track record of solving technical problems — suggests that a waste-to-fuel industry may not remain out of reach forever.
General Motors has invested an undisclosed sum in two companies, Coskata, of Warrenville, Ill., and Macoma, of Lebanon, N.H., that aim to turn crop wastes into ethanol.
DuPont, one of the world’s largest chemical companies, has joined forces with a company called Genencor, announcing plans to commercialize a process for making ethanol from the nonedible parts of corn and sugar cane. They plan to invest $140 million over three years.
In making their announcement, the companies estimated the worldwide market for fuels made by methods like theirs would eventually reach $75 billion, dwarfing the scale of today’s biofuels produced from food crops like corn and sugar cane.