Colorado ethanol producer shifting toward using wood

Amanda Huber, process manager for Front Range Energy, looks at the carbon dioxide coming out of the flasks filled with 93 percent corn mash and 7 percent cellulosic sugar. The cellulosic sugar was extracted from beetle-kill wood from Colorado. Huber is working on a lab-scale fermentation trial of cellulosic feed stock, such as beetle-kill wood, to create a new source for making ethanol other than corn. Enlarge photo

HELEN H. RICHARDSON/The Denver Post

Amanda Huber, process manager for Front Range Energy, looks at the carbon dioxide coming out of the flasks filled with 93 percent corn mash and 7 percent cellulosic sugar. The cellulosic sugar was extracted from beetle-kill wood from Colorado. Huber is working on a lab-scale fermentation trial of cellulosic feed stock, such as beetle-kill wood, to create a new source for making ethanol other than corn.

DENVER (AP) – A Colorado ethanol producer is set to employ a landmark technology that could help resolve the food vs. fuel controversy swirling around corn-based ethanol.

Front Range Energy in Windsor successfully has tested a new process to make ethanol from waste wood. The facility plans to begin commercial production next year.

Front Range is the second ethanol producer in the nation to use a newly patented technology for making fuel from biomass, in place of corn.

The wood-to-ethanol process could help answer a major question in agricultural economics: Does it makes sense to use corn for transportation fuel instead of food?

Ethanol is widely used as an additive to gasoline for increasing octane and reducing emissions. Most Colorado gas contains 10 percent ethanol. Almost all of it is made from corn.

Government mandates for ethanol in gasoline have diverted part of the nation’s corn supply to fuel instead of for livestock feed and food production.

Critics contend that livestock producers and consumers end up paying the price in higher costs for feed and food. Supporters maintain that ethanol helps reduce U.S. reliance on imported oil.

For years, researchers have sought an economic technique for using biomass – including wood, crop residue and grasses – to make fuel.

Front Range Energy recently signed a 15-year, $100 million deal with Sweetwater Energy to use Sweetwater’s process for converting biomass to sugars, which in turn are distilled into ethanol.

“The idea to use biomass to convert to ethanol is not a new idea,” said Dan Sanders Jr., vice president of Front Range Energy. “What’s new is the technology to bring it to market.”

Front Range plans to convert 7 percent of its ethanol production from corn to woody biomass by next year. That will reduce the company’s corn consumption by about 1.2 million bushels a year.

If the conversion proves successful, Front Range will increase its use of biomass.

Rochester, N.Y.-based Sweetwater plans to acquire waste wood primarily from lumber mills. Some may originate from beetle-killed pine – a source that is plentiful in Colorado. It also can use crop residues and other plant matter.

Sweetwater’s proprietary process uses diluted acids to convert wood’s cellulose into a sugar solution. Front Range then distills the sugars into ethanol. The ethanol is shipped to fuel-blending terminals in metro Denver.

Jim McMillan, a bioenergy engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, said several firms nationwide are testing cellulosic ethanol processes and moving toward commercial production.