Vonore biofuel plant opens

Cellulosic ethanol production facility is first of its kind, can convert switchgrass, corncobs

Hugh G. Willett, knoxnews.com
VONORE - A crowd of several hundred, including elected officials, representatives of the University of Tennessee, and executives from Dupont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol LLC, braved the cold Friday for the opening of the world's first cellulosic ethanol production facility.
The 74,000-square-foot demonstration plant located in Vonore's Niles Ferry Industrial Park has the capacity to convert switchgrass or corncobs into 250,000 gallons of ethanol annually.

After transferring the technology developed at the plant to large-scale production, the U.S. might be producing as much as 16 billion gallons of biofuel by 2022.

The opening of the plant is a big step in the creation of new alternative fuels, according to Joe Skurla president and CEO of DDCE.

Skurla said that his company had delivered on its promise to investors and the rest of the industry and was ahead of the curve in developing a value chain from feedstock to production.

"I took a drive this morning in the first car fueled with our E10 biofuel," Skurla said.

The long-term goal of the Tennessee Biofuels Initiative at the university, is to "end our nation's dependence on fossil fuels," said UT Interim President Jan Simek.

According to Simek, the town of Vonore has a long tradition of intellectual innovation going back to the invention by Cherokee Indian chief Sequoya of the first written language for American Indians.

"Genius resides here," Simek said.

Although Gov. Phil Bredesen was forced to cancel his appearance at the event because of inclement weather, U.S. Representatives John Duncan and Zach Wamp were in attendance, along with state Rep. Jimmy Matlock and local officials.

Wamp explained how the plan to convert switchgrass to fuel began almost 10 years ago. The effort required the alignment of a broad array of the state's natural and intellectual resources.

"This brings transportation, agriculture and energy all together," Wamp said.

Congressman Duncan said the use of locally grown switchgrass for raw material will allow small farmers in Tennessee to survive.

Loudon County farmer Van Shaver has been growing switchgrass for the project. He said he had to make significant investments in farm equipment to participate in the program.

"I think it's been worth the effort," Shaver said. "I'm proud to be helping develop solutions for energy independence."

One of the most important goals of the project is to develop low cost ways for farmers to harvest and transport switchgrass to the facility for processing, said Alvin Womack, a professor of biomass chemistry at UT.

UT has been working with farm machinery producers such as John Deere to develop equipment that can chop the switchgrass at the farmer's location, reducing bulk and saving fuel needed to transport the material.

A tour of the facility followed the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Guides explained how switchgrass is turned into fuel using a process that starts with pretreatment and saccrification to remove sugars, then moves to fermentation, distillation and filtering.

The process is very similar to that used by moonshiners to produce alcohol, according to site manager Keith Brazzell.

While the demonstration plant processes material into fuel using 25,000 gallon tanks, a commercial production facility might scale up the process using million-gallon tanks, Brazzell said.