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Perhaps the best kept secret in the ethanol industry is BlueFire Ethanol Inc. an ethanol development company, that has begun trading on the pink sheets under the symbol BFRE.PK. They use the Arkenol Technology Process for the conversion of municipal solid waste [MSW], rice and wheat straws, wood waste and other agricultural residues to ethanol.

Their use of the Arkenol Technology positions it as the only cellulose-to-ethanol company worldwide with demonstrated production of ethanol from these materials. They have an exclusive, North American license of the technology for use in the production of ethanol for the transportation fuel market.

Since 2003, the technology has been successfully used in the IZUMI pilot plant operated by JGC, the licensee of Arkenol for Japan and SE Asia, to produce ethanol for the Japanese transportation fuel market. Over the last 10 years, the initial testing on a vast array of potential feedstock has been completed both in the U.S. and at various locations throughout the world. BlueFire has completed the arrangement of the major commitments necessary to proceed with final development of its first commercial facility which will be sited in California.

Arkenol has developed significant proprietary improvements to a well known conversion technology known as concentrated acid hydrolysis such that the process is ready for commercial implementation. Some of the most important innovations are:

* Flash fermentation
* Membrane distillation
* Chromatographic separation of the acid from the sugars

The company claims that for the first time the technology enables widely available cellulosic materials, or more commonly, biomass, to be converted into sugar in an economically viable manner, thereby providing an inexpensive raw material for fermentation or chemical conversion into any of a hundred different specialty and/or commodity chemicals

Arkenol determined that the concentrated acid hydrolysis process could be made economically viable through the use of new technology, modern control methods, and newer materials of construction.

To demonstrate the efficacy of the technology, Arkenol has constructed and operated a pilot plant near its Southern California offices for roughly five years. The pilot facility is rated at a nominal 1 ton per day biomass throughput, assuming a 24 hour, 3 shift operating schedule. During normal operation, 1 shift per day is sufficient for feedstock studies, design trials, and normal maintenance. The facility was constructed using readily available pilot equipment using no exotic materials.

Izumi Pilot Plant

A lager pilot facility the 21,500 gallon per year fully integrated Izumi (Izumi is a town located on the southern tip of Japan) pilot plant, using waste wood chips as feedstock, has been operational since 2002. The plant is operated by JGC Corporation, Kobe University, Kumamoto University, and four other universities, the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science & Technology, the Japan Alcohol Association, XNRI Co., Ltd., and others. The plant is funded by New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization [NEDO] of the Japanese Government under a five year contract ending in 2007.

Some of the significant features and accomplishments are:

* Wood chips are sized to a nominal 10 mm with high fines fraction.
* Cellulose conversion efficiencies have been stable at 70%, with optimization at 80%.
* Sulfuric acid recovery is over 97% with reconcentration of the 18% dilute acid to 75% in continuous use since 2003.
* A simulated moving bed [SMB] chromatographic separation unit, using small plastic beads, is used to separate the acid fraction from the sugars. SMB's are used in the sugar industry for glucose-sucrose separation and separating sugar from molasses.
* Lignin combustion test (requiring 4 tons of lignin) completed successfully.
* JGC developed flash fermentation offers significant operating cost savings. The fermentation takes place in a fluidized reactor with immobilized media
* Uses NREL developed rec. Z. mobilis (under license) in fixed bed and S. cereviscae to produce ethanol at 95% for over one year.
* Uses first commercial membrane distillation and purification system supplied by Mitsui with significant operating cost savings over conventional (molecular sieve) technology.

Process Description

The process, in simplistic terms, separates the biomass into two main constituents: cellulose and hemicellulose (C6 and C5, the main building blocks of plant life) and lignin (the "glue" that holds the building blocks together), converts the cellulose and hemicellulose to sugars, ferments them and purifies the fermentation liquids into products. These unit operations require a series of material and energy inputs to produce the primary products of fermentation and the resultant by-products (click to enlarge):

If there is no power plant present from which to obtain steam, the production facility would use natural gas or lignin as fuel for its own boilers.

Incoming biomass feedstocks are cleaned and ground to reduce the particle size for the process equipment. The pretreated material is then dried to a moisture content consistent with the acid concentration requirements for decrystallization (separation of the cellulose and hemicellulose from the lignin), then hydrolyzed (degrading the chemical bonds of the cellulose) to produce hexose and pentose sugars at the high concentrations necessary for commercial fermentation. Insoluble materials, principally the lignin portion of the biomass input, are separated from the hydrolyzate by filtering and pressing and further processed into fuel or other beneficial uses.

The remaining acid-sugar solution is separated into its acid and sugar components by means of an Arkenol-developed technology that uses commercially available ion exchange resins to separate the components without diluting the sugar. The separated sulfuric acid is recirculated and reconcentrated to the level required by the decrystallization and hydrolysis steps. The small quantity of acid left in the sugar solution is neutralized with lime to make hydrated gypsum, CaSO4 2H2O, an insoluble precipitate which is readily separated from the sugar solution and which also has beneficial use as an agricultural soil conditioner. At this point the process has produced a clean stream of mixed sugars (both C6 and C5) for fermentation.

In an ethanol production plant, naturally-occurring yeast, which Arkenol has been specifically cultured by a proprietary method to ferment the mixed sugar stream, is mixed with nutrients and added to the sugar solution where it efficiently converts both the C6 and C5 sugars to fermentation beer (an ethanol, yeast and water mixture) and carbon dioxide. The yeast culture is separated from the fermentation beer by a centrifuge and returned to the fermentation tanks for reuse. Ethanol is separated from the now clear fermentation beer by conventional distillation technology, dehydrated to 200 proof with conventional molecular sieve technology, and denatured with unleaded gasoline to produce the final fuel-grade ethanol product. The still bottoms, containing principally water and unfermented pentose sugar, is returned to the process for economic water use and for further conversion of the pentose sugars.

Commercial Project

Arkenol is in final development of its first commercial-scale biorefinery, a combined 4 million gallon per year ethanol production and 40,000 metric ton per year citric acid facility in Sacramento, California the feedstock being cellulosic woody waste and agricultural waste.

The project has already secured through BlueFire Ethanol, Inc., the project development and operation vehicle, long-term feedstock supplies from a major American solid waste treatment and disposal company under a Letter of Intent, as well as sale of the full amount of ethanol product to a domestic retailer under a long-term commitment.

JGC Corporation will do the process design development for this first cellulosic bio-ethanol production project.

The process design package is due in the 3rd Q of 2006, start of engineering and construction will start in the 1st Q of 2007 and commercial operation is to start in the 1st Q of 2009.

Hypothetical Ethanol-only Plant

To give some idea of what a commercial stand-alone fuel-ethanol plant configuration would be, one can assume an available feedstock supply on a 330 days per year, twenty-four hour per day basis which has an average cellulosic content of 75%, having the following inputs and outputs:



Inputs

Feedstock

454 dry tonnes per day

500 dry tons per day

Sulfuric Acid

21.45 tonnes per day

23.6 tons per day

Lime

8.25 tonnes per day

9.1 tons per day

Electricity

5,000 kw

5,000 kw

Steam

61,700 kg. per hour

136,000 lbs. per hour

Outputs

Ethanol, 200 proof

227,000 liters per day

60,000 gallons per day

Carbon Dioxide

172.5 tonnes per day

190 tons per day

Lignin (50% moisture)

136.2 tonnes per day

150 tons per day

Gypsum (40% moisture)

27.2 tonnes per day

30 tons per day

Yeast (80% moisture)

45.2 tonnes per day

49.8 tons per day

Typically, yeast would be grown at the site. Water usage would be minimal because of complete recycling of the water contained in the incoming materials.

Such a plant would utilize approximately five hectares (twelve acres) for the process itself; feedstock intake, preparation and short-term storage (five days); product loadout facilities; CO2 processing; administration and laboratory buildings. The plant is designed on a zero-discharge basis and normally uses public sewers only for sanitary purposes.

A standalone plant would use lignin or natural gas to fire its boilers and therefore will require air permits for the boiler exhaust. Note that a plant sited next to a co-generation facility and using steam from the power plant would have no combustion emissions whatsoever. Volatile organic chemical ("VOC") emissions of ethanol are readily contained by closed fermentation tanks, closed top storage tanks, and vapor recovery transfer systems. In the United States, the only other permits in addition to those for construction and general operations, would be those required by the US Treasury Department for the production and storage of alcohol

The following was taken directly from the Arkenol website, and is obviously outdated but may be of some value in judging their economics:

Arkenol believes that it is necessary to compete in commodity markets with its current capital and operations cost structure. In engineering the Arkenol biorefinery, a focus on cost control has resulted in significant reductions in the overall cost of a facility. Arkenol engineers have already identified process blocks where additional capital and O&M reductions are possible with future operating experience. The table below compares Arkenol's cost with industry using assumptions of $20 per barrel for oil and $3.10 per bushel for corn (current spot costs are over $4.50 per bushel):



Commodity Chemical Type

Industry Standard

Arkenol Process

Fuel - Ethanol ($/gallon)

$1.29

$0.83

Solvents - Butanol ($/pound)

$0.26

$0.18

Organics - Citric Acid ($/pound)

$0.45

$0.39

Arkenol, Inc., is a privately-held company headquartered in Mission Viejo, California. Arkenol is a technology and project development company whose focus is the construction and operation of biorefineries on a worldwide basis to produce a variety of biobased chemicals and transportation fuels. The company was formed in 1992 as an affiliate of ARK Energy, a successful developer of independent power production facilities.

JGC Corporation
(Tokyo exhange: 1963/T) was formed as Japan Gasoline Company in 1928 and changed its name to JPG in 1976. Today it is globally recognized as a world leading engineering contractor with many very large LNG and refinery projects throughout the world. Nippon Oil Corporation Group selected JGC as the main contractor for Japans first IGCC power generation project. In a words first JGC was responsible for aspects of the project, engineering, procurement, construction, and commissioning of the 430,000KW plant which started up in 2003.

BlueFire Ethanol Inc
intends to build a multinational company that leads the world in producing biobased transportation fuels. Its business will encompass development activities leading to the construction and long-term operation of production facilities while maintaining technological advantage of the process technology and all its improvements. In doing so, BlueFire expects to grow the company's revenues to over $10 billion per year domestically.

I thought that concentrated acid plants were supposed to be outdated technology, but this sure sounds like something special. JGC is a real powerhouse-something no other biofuel company has going for it. They have been going at it for a long time and the timing of this announcement is near perfect. Membrane purification is supposed to be the holy grail and flash fermentation cuts the retention time and size of equipment drastically. This should be an interesting development to watch.

Resources:

BlueFire Ethanol, Inc., the Global Technology Leader in MSW Cellulose-to-Ethanol Conversion, Completes Entry Into the Public Market, BlueFire press release, July 11, 2006
Arkenol Inc., Irvine, CA
BlueFire Ethanol Inc., Irvine, CA
JGC Corporation, Yokohama, Japan

Source: Best Kept Secret in the Ethanol Industry: BlueFire Ethanol (BFRE)