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Originally published June 2, 2010 at 5:58 PM | Page modified June 3, 2010 at 8:49 AM

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NW cellulosic-ethanol plant breaks ground

Buoyed by a $25 million federal grant, a Colorado-based biorefining company on Wednesday broke ground on a demonstration plant in Boardman, Ore., that will turn Northwest poplar into ethanol for motor fuel.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Buoyed by a $25 million federal grant, a Colorado-based biorefining company on Wednesday broke ground on a demonstration plant in Boardman, Ore., that will turn Northwest poplar into ethanol for motor fuel.

Zeachem officials say the 250,000 gallon-a-year plant will produce a mix of ethanol and a higher-value chemical, called ethyl acetate, that is used in paints, solvents and other products.

The company hopes eventually to build a series of larger plants that would convert the poplar sprouting from irrigated farmland along the Columbia River into ethanol.

"A 5-mile radius of trees could produce a hundred million gallons a year," said Jim Imbler, Zeachem's president.

Dozens of companies are scrambling to develop cellulosic ethanol, which can be made from wood, straw, sugar-cane stalks and other fibrous plant materials. But during the past decade, that effort has been fraught with delays that reflect the difficulties of trying to turn these materials into motor fuel profitably and on a large scale.

Both the Bush and Obama administrations have been big boosters of cellulosic ethanol, and awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to help jump-start the industry.

The federal government has set ambitious mandates for the sale of cellulose motor fuel that were supposed to kick in this year at 100 million gallons and expand to 16 billion gallons annually by 2022. But there are only a few demonstration plants operating, so the initial 2010 mandate was scaled back to 6.5 million gallons. Even that modest goal may not be met, according to Andy Aden, an engineer who tracks cellulose development at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo.

Ethanol, which boosts octane, is blended at 10 percent levels with gasoline. Some new cars can use a mix of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline that is sold at an expanding network of pumps.

Most ethanol currently comes from corn. That has triggered contentious debates about the ethics of turning food into fuel and the environmental impact of using fertilizer, pesticides and other fossil-fuel products to grow and process the grain.

Ethanol critics also have questioned whether irrigated farmlands, such as those that now grow poplar, should be used to produce motor fuel.

Zeachem researchers developed a technology that uses a bacteria found in a termite's gut to break down cellulose into acetic acid, which can then be refined into ethanol or ethyl acetate. Company officials say the process can produce ethanol more cheaply, and with a smaller carbon footprint, than some rival technologies.

"Their technology is unique," Aden said. "They are a knowledgeable group, and have done their homework and are well respected."

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Zeachem originally planned a plant producing 1.2 million gallons a year, but then decided on the current, scaled-down plant, financed with the federal grant and $34 million in private funding.

Greenwood Resources, which now grows poplar for lumber, will provide the wood.

Initially, some of Greenwood's mill wastes could feed the ethanol process.

But Imbler, of Zeachem, eventually envisions irrigated farms dedicated to producing brushy, fast-growing poplar that could be mowed down, chipped and sent to the plant.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

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