BlueFire Gets Approval for Waste-to-Ethanol Plant

The dream of taking the contents of our trash cans and putting them into our fuel tanks has moved one step closer to reality with BlueFire Ethanol’s announcement that they’ve been granted permission to build a waste-to-fuel ethanol plant next to a landfill in Lancaster, Calif. The ethanol brewer claims that the facility, which is scheduled to be operational by the end of 2009, will be the first commercial-scale plant in the U.S. to convert biowaste into ethanol. But there are plenty of other competitors that have similarly aggressive timelines.

Irvine, Calif.-based BlueFire was granted a conditional-use permit by the county of Los Angeles to build a plant on 10 acres next to the Lancaster landfill, where the company says 170 tons of potential feedstock in the form of biowaste gets dumped every day. The plant, estimated to cost $30 million, will have an output of 3.2 million gallons of non-food-based ethanol using the company’s “patented and proven” concentrated acid hydrolysis technology process, BlueFire says.

And that’s just the start of BlueFire’s plans. BlueFire CEO Arnold Klann told us in an interview earlier this year that over the next 5 years the company wants to build 20 plants near landfills, which could generate 3 billion gallons of ethanol per year by 2017.

As the food-vs.-fuel debate continues to grow, waste-to-fuel is attracting dollars from increasingly large corporations and column inches from mainstream media. The New York Times reports today that companies like DuPont and Genencor, General Motors, Honeywell and BP are investing in waste-to-fuel projects that are planned to come online in the next year or two. DuPont and Genencor estimate the non-food global fuel market will eventually be worth $75 billion.

Fulcrum BioEnergy plans to begin construction on a waste to ethanol plant later this year. Boston-based waste-to-biofuel startup Ze-Gen is being backed by the investors at Flagship Ventures and VantagePoint Venture Partners. Cellulosic ethanol maker Coskata says its can use waste as the feedstock for its biofuel creation process and is being backed by the VCs at Globespan Capital Partners, Khosla Ventures, GreatPoint Ventures and Advanced Technology Ventures (not to mention GM).

GeneSyst, an 18-year old private company based in Hudson, Ohio, is also looking to build waste processing and biofuel facilities near landfills. The company processes waste in water tanks, letting gravity do the trick of pulling out bits than can be recycled, as well as the cellulosic waste materials, which it can turn into ethanol. The company is building its first landfill to fuel plant in the Netherlands, and has plans for its first plant in the U.S. likely to be located in Lake County, Indiana (a suburb of Chicago.)

BlueFire received $15.5 million from Quercus Trust earlier this year, and was selected by the DOE to potentially receive $40 million in funding for an even bigger waste-to-ethanol plant that the company tells us is still on track for 2010 operation (unlike some DOE-funded ethanol projects).