Mary Tutwiler

Biofuels plant opens in Jennings

by Mary Tutwiler

An ethanol plant in Jennings, which hopes to turn sugarcane waste into biofuel, opens today. Cambridge-based Verenium Corp . will begin demonstrating an alternative to corn-based ethanol, potentially taking the pressure off of food crops and focusing on agricultural waste. The 1.4 million-gallon-a-year demonstration scale plant is the first step toward construction of a 30 million-gallon-per-year plant for commercial ethanol production, slated for 2009.

Turning rice hulls and bagasse into ethanol has long been the gold standard for south Louisiana ethanol production. Cellulose is the structural component of the cell walls of plants. It is also the most common organic compound on earth. Agricultural waste, or bio mass thus has huge potential as a feed stock for fuel. The problem is that when you go from biomass products to alcohol, you produce two sugars, glucose and xylose. Adding baker’s yeast to glucose causes it to ferment, turning it into alcohol. Xylose takes a different catalyst. While many companies have been working on the dual sugars, the process has been elusive. Turning biomass into ethanol only becomes profitable when 100 percent of the sugars available can be used.

Contained in the 2008 Farm Bill, which became law last week after Congress overrode a Presidential veto, is support for cellulosic ethanol--including loan guarantees for commercial scale bio-refineries, funding for biomass research and development and a cellulosic biofuels production tax credit up to $1.01 per gallon.