WASHINGTON — After months of frustrating delays, a chemical company announced Wednesday that it had produced commercial quantities of ethanol from wood waste and other nonfood vegetative matter, a long-sought goal that, if it can be expanded economically, has major implications for providing vehicle fuel and limiting greenhouse gas emissions.
The company, INEOS Bio, a subsidiary of the European oil and chemical company INEOS, said it had produced the fuel at its $130 million Indian River BioEnergy Center in Vero Beach, Fla., which it had hoped to open by the end of last year. The company said it was the first commercial-scale production of ethanol from cellulosic feedstock, but it did not say how much it had produced. Shipments will begin in August, the company said.
The process begins with wastes — wood and vegetative matter for now, municipal garbage later — and cooks it into a gas of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Bacteria eat the gas and excrete alcohol, which is then distilled. Successful production would eliminate some of the “food versus fuel” debate in the manufacturing of ethanol, which comes from corn.
“Biomass gasification has not been done like this before, nor has the fermentation,” said Peter Williams, chief executive of INEOS Bio.
The plant, which uses methane gas from a nearby landfill, has faced a variety of problems. One was getting the methane, which is a greenhouse gas if released unburned, to the plant’s boilers. (The plan is to eventually run the plant on garbage that now goes to landfills.) Another problem was its reliance on the electrical grid.
The plant usually generates more power than it needs — selling the surplus to the local utility — and is supposed to be able to operate independently. But when thunderstorms knocked out the power grid, the plant unexpectedly shut down and it took weeks to get it running again, said Mark Niederschulte, the chief operating officer of INEOS Bio.
“We’ve had some painful do/undo loops,” he said.
The plant has produced “truckloads” of ethanol, said Mr. Williams, but still has work to do to improve its yield. Mr. Niederschulte said, “Now we want to produce more ethanol from a ton of wood, rather than just making ethanol from a ton of wood.”
The Department of Energy hailed the development as the first of a kind, and said it was made possible by research work the department had sponsored in recent years. The energy secretary, Ernest Moniz, said in a statement, “Unlocking the potential for the responsible development of all of America’s rich energy resources is a critical part of our all-of-the-above energy strategy.”
The Environmental Protection Agency, which grants valuable credits to companies that produce fuel from wastes, confirmed that only a very small volume has been produced so far. Another company, KiOR, has produced some diesel fuel from wood waste at a plant in Columbus, Miss.
Congress laid out a quota for production of biofuels from nonfood sources, but the agency has had to cut it back every year because of lack of production.
INEOS has a goal of eight million gallons a year.
If ethanol can be produced at reasonable cost from abundant nonfood sources, like yard trimmings or household trash, it could displace fuel made from oil, and that oil, and its carbon, could stay in the ground, reducing the amount greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, experts say. Carbon from wood scraps or garbage would enter the atmosphere via cellulosic ethanol, but cutting down a tree or trimming a garden creates space for new growth, which absorbs carbon dioxide from the air.