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Wood waste turns to ethanol

KL Energy of Rapid City, South Dakota, claims to be the first in the nation to start commercial production of cellulosic ethanol at its 1.5-million-gallon plant in nearby Upton, Wyoming.

"It's a commercial facility in that it's going to be running 24-7 and making and selling ethanol," says Tom Slunecka, vice president for business development.

Because of its relatively small size, the plant can be shut down to test different feedstocks, he adds. "It doubles as a commercial facility and a research platform."

Right now, the source of this ethanol is wood wastes gathered from the Black Hills area forest floor into slash piles, Slunecka says. When conditions are damp enough, the slash piles normally are burned as part of a forest fire prevention process.

"What we do is collect those slash piles, then chip them and run them through our plant," he says.

Cost for the wood is about $25 to $45 a ton. The ethanol yield still varies, ranging from 20 to 80 gallons per ton, depending on feedstock quality.

Unlike other wood-based cellulosic ethanol plants about to go into production, the KL Energy plant does not use high temperatures to gasify the wood. Instead, it uses a nonacid-based mechanical pretreatment and enzymes to break wood down into sugars and lignin-based coproducts.

Part of the technology was developed at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, and the project has gotten financial support from the Wyoming Business Council and Wyoming Department of Forestry.

Slunecka won't reveal the plant's current cost of making a gallon of ethanol, but he says it will likely work best for other industries that have access to feedstocks.

"We're looking at the facilities as being add-ons as much as stand-alones," he says. "We believe that the facilities will turn a profit. But I'm not shy in saying that in the next few years when we're getting our efficiencies up to that of the lab, state and federal incentives are critical."

The privately held firm also has investments in corn ethanol plants, and it retrofits and improves older corn ethanol plants. It plans to license its cellulosic technology.

Last March, O2Diesel Europe signed a technology license and services agreement with the South Dakota firm.

KL Energy of Rapid City, South Dakota, claims to be the first in the nation to start commercial production of cellulosic ethanol at its 1.5-million-gallon plant in nearby Upton, Wyoming.

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