Upton, WY Project to Turn Sugar Cane Waste into Ethanol
A small plant in Upton is converting sugar cane waste into ethanol in a project that connects Wyoming to Brazil, the world’s largest market for ethanol and a huge ethanol exporter.
The partnership between Petrobras America Inc., a subsidiary of Brazil’s state-run oil company, and KL Energy Corp., an innovator in biofuel processing, aims to test, demonstrate and refine technology to make ethanol from sugar cane bagasse, the waste created when sugar cane is processed into sugar. The plant started converting bagasse, which is shipped from Louisiana, in March 2011.
As a feedstock for conversion, bagasse has some advantages over other cellulosic materials, says Peter Gross, CEO of KL Energy. “The main advantage is that it is readily available in very large quantifies,” Gross says. “And it is different than other materials in that it is preprocessed. It is much easier to handle with no additional logistics costs.”
Waste Matter Plentiful
Bagasse, which is left over from cane stalk after sucrose is pressed out, accounts for one-quarter of raw sugar cane, in terms of wet weight, he says. “Most modern [sugar cane] mills have a large excess of it, and there are two possible applications: burning it and selling it to the grid or converting it to ethanol.”
For example, a large sugar cane mill in Brazil will have more than 100,000 dry tons of bagasse available each year, which can produce 10 million gallons of ethanol a year, says Gross.
Petrobras has had its own pilot plant in Brazil since 2007, but the Wyoming project is part of an “industrial validation” to demonstrate commercial viability. Both companies have begun engineering work on an industrial scale bagasse-to-ethanol project in Brazil that will be integrated with an existing mill Petrobras owns by 2013.
The Brazilian company estimates cellulosic ethanol could boost its ethanol output by 40 percent, involving additional land use and still shrinking the carbon footprint from its sugarcane mills.
Bagasse Now, Pulp Next
KL Energy’s existing demonstration project in Upton is what got the attention of Petrobras, which is investing $11 million to upgrade the facility. The Upton plant has been a contributor to Wyoming economic development since 2008, making ethanol in small batches from fallen and dead trees, brush and forest debris. A local cooperative has been selling the fuel.
After the bagasse phase, in June 2011, the same facility will process waste pulp and other byproducts from the pulp and paper industry, says Gross.
Linda Harris, executive director of the Northeast Wyoming Economic Development Coalition, says the plant has benefited Wyoming's economic development by producing jobs, revenue and attention for the region, where interest in biofuels and other energy projects, including coal gasification, is growing. “It gets the community noticed,” Harris says.
Gross is familiar with the region. He’s Brazilian but is a graduate of Kelly Walsh High School in Casper. The area’s abundance of Ponderosa Pine feedstock made Upton a good location for the first demonstration project, and the bagasse conversion is considered a second-generation process.
The agreement between KL Energy and Petrobras also gives the Brazilian company the option to license KL Energy’s technology. Brazil has the world’s largest and most sophisticated ethanol market, but the research from Upton will have far broader reach. “Whatever we learn now can be applied in the U.S.,” Gross says.