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N.C. to Lead U.S. With $99M Cellulosic Ethanol Plant

North Carolina State University Research Associate Darren Touchell inspects giant miscanthus being developed for ethanol production at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research Extension Center in Mills River, near Asheville. Courtesy of NCSU.

Construction will begin by the end of 2012 on a $99 million cellulosic ethanol plant in Sampson County, putting North Carolina in the forefront of fuel production from non-food agricultural crops.

The 20-million-gallon-a-year biofuel refinery is a public-private project involving the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Italian biofuels company Chemtex, and Novozymes, which has developed the enzymes used in the refining process.

It’s a huge step forward for North Carolina’s agricultural biotechnology sector, providing the nation’s first full-scale ethanol facility relying on non-food cellulosic materials such as miscanthus and switchgrass and even wood scraps. These types of raw materials will be grown on some 30,000 acres of marginal land by farmers in close proximity to the refinery, adding to the project’s efficiency. Some of the land is currently used for waste disposal in “spray fields” by hog producers.

Facility creates more than 300 jobs

When fully operational in 2014, the biofuels plant will provide 65 direct jobs and an estimated 250 more indirect jobs, mostly in Eastern and Southeastern North Carolina. Already, Novozymes North America’s $500 million headquarters in Franklinton employs 500 people.

“Novozymes is excited to partner with Chemtex to convert energy crops into cellulosic ethanol in North Carolina,” said Peder Holk Nielsen, executive vice president of Novozymes. “It is a great step forward for the U.S. biofuels industry and an endorsement of the technologies Chemtex and Novozymes have each developed. I am confident our collaboration will become a benchmark for the advanced biofuels industry in the U.S.”

The project is also a boost for the Biofuels Center of North Carolina, established in 2007 in Oxford by the General Assembly after a statewide study initiated by the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.

Partners across the state identified cellulosic biofuel production as a valuable addition to the state’s agricultural base producing more than $70 billion a year in revenue, and its life-science core, representing nearly $65 billion a year in economic activity.

The Biofuels Center, like the Biotechnology Center, is a private, non-profit corporation funded permanently by the General Assembly. Its target is to find ways North Carolina can produce fully 10 percent of its liquid fuel consumption in-state, from cellulosic energy crops, animal waste and other non-food products.

Crops improved to boost efficiencies

Researchers have been developing increasingly efficient versions of miscanthus and other crops, including sterile versions that can’t produce seed, and hardy versions that are pest resistant and capable of surviving marginal soil and water conditions.

The USDA awarded Chemtex $3.9 million two months ago, under the federal Biomass Crop Assistance Program, to help North Carolina farmers establish an initial 4,000-plus acres of miscanthus and switchgrass across 11 counties to help supply the new facility.

Chemtex, in partnership with the Biofuels Center, is converting land from growing coastal Bermuda grass, previously used only to manage swine lagoon effluent, into production of the more-valuable energy grasses such as miscanthus and switchgrass.

Farmers to earn more while helping pork industry

USDA officials estimate the growers will net $4.5 million a year in increased revenue, while continuing to help remove effluent from the state’s pork industry.

“Today's announcement supports the Obama Administration's 'all-of-the-above' energy strategy to embrace alternative American-produced feedstocks that support our nation's energy independence and provide jobs in rural areas,” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

Besides USDA, the Biofuels Center and Novozymes, Chemtex officials thanked the North Carolina pork industry and North Carolina-based Branch Banking & Trust for partnering in the project.

The North Carolina plant will use some of the same technology being used in the world’s first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant, which is expected to begin full-scale operation by the end of 2012 in Crescentino, Italy. The process, developed by another Italian company called Beta Renewables, will also be used in a series of plants to be built by GraalBio in Brazil.

Comments

I'd like to see this facility making arrangements with the NCDOT and local environmental organizations to use the abundant invasive Miscanthus that covers many areas in Western North Carolina, in addition to growing more of this exotic. Harvesting the large fields/byways taken over by this grass would potentially slow the spread or at least allow native plants a greater chance. In addition to volunteer efforts, perhaps entrepreneurs could find this profitable if they receive some compensation for delivering large quantities of suitable material.

Deborah, thank you for your thoughts. If you'd like to pursue this further, please feel free to contact me or Leif Forer, Civic and Small-scale Biofuels Manager at the Biofuels Center of North Carolina in Oxford. I showed him your post, and he likes the idea. Here's his response: "I have received similar comments over the years about using kudzu as a feedstock for one of these facilities. My response is positive. Yes, most of these facilities are able to process kudzu as well as "wild" miscanthus and would probably be amenable to purchasing it. The rub may be that because the non-cultivated biomass is so spread out harvesting it may not be cost effective. Harvesting might be viable as part of a community service or correctional program or, as suggested by your commenter, using volunteer labor." Thank you for your note!

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