NETWORKS touts promise of local ethanol, biodiesel plants

Rick Wagner • May 15, 2008 at 12:00 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Local economic developers are looking at opportunities to have ethanol and biodiesel production facilities in or around Kingsport and Sullivan County, literally to be fed by the region’s renewable feedstocks, technology and infrastructure.

Bill Anderson, a retired Eastman Chemical Co. chemist and chairman of the NETWORKS – Sullivan Partnership’s Ad Hoc Biofuels Committee, said he foresees Northeast Tennessee as a prime site for two types of biofuels production, one that could in effect become part of Domtar’s paper production in Kingsport.

Anderson spoke Thursday at the regular meeting of NETWORKS, a joint venture of Sullivan County, Kingsport, Bristol, Tenn., and Bluff City.

Federal legislation passed in December 2007 says that by 2025 25 percent of the nation’s fuel needs will be met by alternative fuels, fuel efficiency will increase by 40 percent, 15 billion gallons of corn-based ethanol (called the first generation) will be made, and 21 billion gallons of other renewable fuels will be made in the second generation.

Since the nation already has the capacity to make 13.2 million gallons of corn ethanol and is making 7.5 million now, Anderson said the second generation technologies are obviously where the future of biofuels are.

Anderson and NETWORKS Chief Executive Officer Richard Venable said an ethanol plant could be a full-sized version of a pilot plant to be built near Knoxville with state and federal help.

As for possible diesel production using German technology, Venable said Eastman, which has expertise in coal gasification, and paper maker Domtar could be a good fit for such plants, with logging waste and other feedstocks available, or in the case of switchgrass easy to grow.

The University of Tennessee pilot ethanol plant near Vonore, Tenn., in Monroe County is to be operated by Mascoma and produce ethanol from switchgrass at about 10 percent the size of a commercial operation. The process, which results in cellulostic ethanol, removes the lignin coating from cellulose fibers — a sugar polymer — and then uses enzymes to break down the fibers into sugar, which is then fermented much as regular corn ethanol.

The catch is the enzymes can cost up to $3 per gallon, but the research, he said, is trying to whittle that price down to five or 10 cents per gallon.

The federal government currently subsidizes ethanol by 51 cents a gallon. Investors in Mascoma include General Motors and Marathon Oil.

The other process — to make diesel, ethanol and even gasoline — is called gasification or catalytic conversion. It takes biomass and adds carbon and oxygen as a catalyst to produce fuel. It was developed by Germany in the 1920s and 1930s and helped fuel that country’s war effort in the 1940s. And it has been used since the 1950s to make diesel in South Africa.

Anderson said Domtar plant manager Charlie Floyd has talked with NETWORKS officials, is aware of the technology and is interested in learning more.

“That would be the ideal situation,” Anderson said.

Choren Industries of Germany is using this type of catalytic conversion, called the Fischer Tropsch diesel process, with investment support from Damlier, Volkswagen and Shell Oil. It plans a plant in the southeastern United States. Another company, Stora Enso, is using Fischer Tropsch on a demonstration diesel-paper plant. And Weyerhaeuser, which used to own the Domtar plant, has partnered with Chevron on a similar venture.

The vision by UT and others it to have 10 ethanol production facilities in Tennessee employing 4,000 people, with 12,000 supporting rural jobs, 3,000 jobs from satellite products production, 20,000 farmers growing switchgrass and other feedstocks, and $100 million a year in new farm revenue.

Anderson said the vegetable oil-to-biodiesel process used at the recently opened Nu-Energie LLC in the Phipps Bend Industrial Park in Hawkins County is a viable process well into commercial production. He said economies of scale are such that biodiesel plants don’t have to be as large as ethanol plants to be cost effective.

Those facilities take oil — virgin soybean oil at Nu-Energie but other plant or animal oils at other facilities — and add methanol to make a product that after washing becomes biodiesel.

Many use water for washing, but Nu-Energie uses pellets and thus requires no water treatment. Nationwide, there are 144 of these types of plants and 16 under construction, producing 2.1 billion gallons a year and getting a subsidy of $1 a gallon.

One advantage that biodiesel has is that it has 95 percent or more as much energy as petroleum diesel, Anderson said, adding that alcohol generally has about 70 percent the energy content of petroleum gasoline. The latter means that for E85, which is 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline and is used in designated flex-fuel vehicles, would be cost effective at $2.80 a gallon if gasoline is $4 a gallon.

Anderson said that about 54 percent of the vehicles in Europe are diesel, compared to about 3.5 percent in the United States. But he predicted that will increase in years to come because of the efficiency of the diesel engines.

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