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Plant to convert trash to ethanol

An Irvine company gets a federal grant to turn garden, wood and paper waste into fuel.

March 01, 2007|Elizabeth Douglass | Times Staff Writer

Tons of trash at a Riverside County landfill may be headed to the fuel pump with the help of a $40-million federal grant awarded Wednesday.

BlueFire Ethanol Inc. of Irvine, which proposed the California waste-to-ethanol project, was among six companies to win $385 million from the Energy Department as part of President Bush's push to cut gasoline consumption by 20% over the next decade.

For BlueFire, the grant represents validation that its technology can work, and provides crucial seed money to launch the company's $110-million project.

"It is especially exciting that we are looking to what the industry calls 'trash to cash,' taking our most devalued resource, waste, and converting it into our most valued resource, fuel that displaces oil," said Alexander Karsner, assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy at the U.S. Department of Energy.

Before the first gallon of ethanol streams out of the plant, BlueFire must finalize terms of the Energy Department funding, win project approval from county officials, collect $70 million more in funding and go through 24 months of construction.

But Chief Executive Arnold Klann is optimistic. He hopes that the landfill ethanol plant can go into operation by the end of 2009, transforming 700 tons of garden, wood and paper waste into 19 million gallons a year of ethanol that would then be blended into California gasoline.

"This project is one of many to come," Klann said. BlueFire, he added, also was talking with government officials about similar projects at landfills in Orange and Los Angeles counties.

BlueFire's project and the others that won federal funding Wednesday would be the nation's first step toward large-scale production of so-called cellulosic ethanol, which is made from plant material. Experts believe that next-generation ethanol production holds more promise and fewer pitfalls than today's ethanol, which in this country is made primarily from corn kernels.

"These bio-refineries will play a critical role in helping to bring cellulosic ethanol to market, and teaching us how we can produce it in a more cost-effective manner," Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said.

Bodman's department more than doubled the amount it planned to spend in the next four years backing bio-refineries -- to $385 million from $160 million -- "to front-end some funding now, so that we could all reap the benefits of the president's vision sooner."

Bodman's grants must still pass muster with Congress, which has to approve the Energy Department's budget.

BlueFire will use a patented sulfuric acid process at its proposed plant to tease out the needed sugars from the landfill biomass, then use regular fermentation to get ethanol. Klann said this "very simple process" could produce ethanol at a cost of $1 a gallon -- well below estimates from rival cellulosic technologies.

Waste Management, operator of the El Sobrante landfill in Corona, is one of BlueFire's partners on the project. Others include California fuel distributor Petro-Diamond, MECS Inc., NAES and JGC Corp., a Japanese company that has made ethanol using BlueFire's technology for several years.

The other five grant winners would make ethanol using a variety of methods. They are: Alico Inc., which plans a Florida plant that would gasify citrus peels and yard and other waste, $33 million; Abengoa Bioenergy Biomass of Kansas, which would use a heat and chemical process on wheat straw and switch grass, $76 million; Broin Cos., which would use enzymes to process corn cobs and stalks in Iowa, $80 million; Iogen Biorefinery Partners, which would use specialty enzymes on wheat and barley straw, $80 million; and Range Fuels Inc., which would gasify wood residue in a Georgia facility, $76 million.

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elizabeth.douglass@latimes.com

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