ZeaChem Tapping Trees for Ethanol

ZeaChem, a biofuel startup that says it’s figured out the trick to cellulosic ethanol, has inked a deal securing poplar trees as a feedstock for the company’s new bio-refinery. The company plans to announce on Monday that GreenWood Resources will be supplying the poplar trees for ZeaChem’s planned 1.5 million gallons of ethanol produced a year from a refinery to be located near Portland, Ore.

Engineering on the plant has started and ZeaChem has been raising money to foot the bill. ZeaChem received $4 million in funding last summer from Mohr Davidow Ventures, who tells us that the company successfully produced its first liter of ethanol at their Menlo Park, Calif. pilot plant last month. Firelake Capital is also an investor.

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard poplar pop up as a possible biofuel feedstock. Scientists have been reducing the amount of lignin in the trees to try to make them more suitable for ethanol production. However, ZeaChem’s patented process relies on the lignin, which is in the tree’s cell walls, to produce its ethanol. ZeaChem converts the the fermentable sugars into acetate and then gasifies the remainder, tough lignin and all, into hydrogen before mixing the two streams in a reaction called hydrogenolysis to produce ethanol.

The company, founded in 2002 and headquartered in Lakewood, Colo., claims that the intermediate steps yield the highest energy and carbon efficient conversion process known. We’ll believe it when we can see the ethanol through the trees.

zeachem process crop

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