The ZeaChem biorefinery in Boardman is officially producing ethanol from sawdust.
The Colorado-based company announced it has made its first batch of cellulosic ethanol at its demonstration facility.
It's a key milestone in a long-term plan to build a commercial-scale plant next-door, according to ZeaChem CEO Jim Imbler.
"Now we'll be routinely producing it. We've got a number of runs we need to make with certain feeds and feed stocks," he said. "Then we start commercial design. We hope to break ground on that next year right across the road."
ZeaChem is using wood waste from the nearby Greenwood Resources tree farm to produce cellulosic ethanol – the new promised land for renewable biofuels in the U.S. It uses a microbe found in termites to break down woody material and turn it into fuel.
The Energy Information Administration says the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions for cellulosic ethanol can be 80 to 90 percent less than petroleum products, and it doesn't compete with businesses that need corn for livestock or food products. The federal government set a goal of producing 500 million gallons of cellulosic biofuels by 2012 and 1 billion gallons by 2013.
But we're not even close to meeting them. Last year, the U.S. produced just 20,000 gallons.
ZeaChem's demonstration facility in Boardman can produce up to 250,000 gallons of biofuel. The commercial plant the company is planning would have a capacity of 25 million gallons. So, if the plants reach capacity, they would significantly increase U.S. cellulosic biofuel production over last year's level. But they alone wouldn't be able to reach the federal targets.
Imbler said the main obstacle to producing more cellulosic biofuel has been financing the production plants.
"We're at the point now where it's not just the technology it's you're ability to build it and finance it," he said. "There's a different set of skills needed right now. You can have a neat process, but if you can't build it it doesn't do any good."
In fact, ZeaChem still needs additional financing before it can start building its commercial-scale biofuel plant in Boardman.
But Imbler said having the demonstration facility up and running should help attract investment.
"Now we can show people: here are the test results," he said. "Here's how it works. Here's what happened. That's so much better than just telling people how it's going to work."