Nick Chambers, Editor, July 24th, 2009, Gas2 eNewsletter
ZeaChem — a company launched in 1998 by “two guys in a pickup” and ranked by Biofuels Digest as the 11th hottest company in bioenergy last year — claims that their process for making advanced, next-generation ethanol from fast growing woody crops such as poplars will result in a yield of 2,000 gallons of ethanol per acre.
In case you’re wondering if that number is good, compare it to the current yield obtained by the best managed corn ethanol plants of about 450 gallons per acre. A 2,000 gallon per acre yield is on par with the amount of fuel algae outfits claim they can produce with technology that doesn’t really yet exist. ZeaChem’s process already functions using available technology.
On top of this, ZeaChem claims they can make that ethanol for a cost of $20 per ton of woody feedstock. Doing my own calculations with fast-growing tree crop poplars as an example — 1,500 trees per acre producing 15 tons of feedstock — the base cost to make that ethanol comes out to 15 cents per gallon. Of course, the price you’ll pay at the pump would be higher, but even with profit margins, transportation, delivery and taxes on top of that, it’ll still be rock cheap.
By using a crop with such a large amount of biomass per acre, ZeaChem also reduces the footprint of the land required to feed an ethanol plant by 90% over other ethanol crops such as grasses, which only produce about 2 tons of feedstock per acre and, therefore, require a huge amount of land to feed an ethanol plant. Also, crop trees such as hybrid poplars need only be planted once — after they’re harvested they sprout again from the same stump.
By way of looking at the bigger picture, if you consider that the US uses approximately 145 billion gallons of gasoline each year and the US has about 470,000,000 acres of arable land, you could supply 30% of the US’s fuel needs with about 4.6% of all the arable land in the US using ZeaChem’s process.
The company is currently building its first demonstration-scale plant in Boardman, OR, which will be fed by woody biomass from a nearby hybrid poplar plantation run by GreenWood Resources. If all of what ZeaChem claims is true, get ready for a revolution in how the US handles fuel production — one that doesn’t pit food against fuel.