Aemetis’ Cellulosic Ethanol From Orchard Waste Project

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by Jim Lane
The 60 million gallon Aemetis (non-cellulosic) ethanol plant in Keyes, California

There were more than 100 presentations at ABLC last week and not a clunker amongst them, but if I were to point the reader’s attention at one or two that stood out from the rest because of the short-term or long-term implications, I’d start with the news from Aemetis (AMTX) that they are embarking now on a $158 million cellulosic ethanol plant — to be built in Riverbank, California, in partnership with LanzaTech.

Cellulosic ethanol is selling for such a high price in California right now — the value jumps north of $4.00 per gallon at times — that any producer of conventional ethanol is going to see the market opportunity. The current market price of cellulosic ethanol sold in California is estimated to be $3.00 more per gallon than conventional ethanol.

The key is getting it done and making it happen. And something very special to that end is underway in central California right now.

If you’ve driven the smoke-filled San Joaquin Valley — America’s breadbasket — you’ll know that someone is burning something in awfully big quantities, and that something is, more or less, orchard waste — much of it from the explosion of almond cultivation in the Valley. Value is going up in smoke, clean air too.

Demonstration completed

So, it’s big news this week that Aemetis completed its operation of an integrated demonstration unit for more than 120 days of continuous operations with 94% uptime, meeting the requirements for a federal USDA 9003 Biorefinery Assistance Program guaranteed loan.

In partnership with its key technology providers InEnTec and LanzaTech, Aemetis successfully optimized the integration of an advanced arc furnace and gas fermentation technologies to convert waste biomass into low carbon, renewable cellulosic ethanol and fish meal. The unit was built at the InEnTec Technology Center in Richland, Washington and demonstrated the fully integrated system, including biomass handling, gasification, gas clean up, waste treatment and distillation systems.

Looking in depth at the project

Aemetis CEO Eric McAfee told the Digest:

“With 1.5 million acres of almonds and walnuts in the Central Valley generating about 1.6 million tons of waste wood and nutshells each year, about 160 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol needs to be produced to eliminate the air pollution from burning or decomposition of this material (as well as Construction & Demolition, vineyard, dairy and collected food waste).  

“Set to open in 2019, the Aemetis 12 mgy cellulosic ethanol plant is located at the former Riverbank ammunition plant near Modesto. Using waste orchard wood to produce biofuels is projected to generate more than $70 million of revenues from cellulosic ethanol, fish meal and biogas, and about $50 million of annual positive cash flow.

 “With about 20 million shares outstanding, each 12-14 million gallon phase is projected to generate $2.50 per share of operating cash flow.  Adding two of the 14 million gallon expansions at the same Riverbank site will create a 40 mgy plant.  We plan to build until we have four, 40 million gallon capacity cellulosic ethanol plants in the Central Valley.”

For the demonstration unit, Aemetis used waste orchard wood and nut shells from almond and walnut trees as feedstock, gasified the biomass using a high temperature plasma gasification system to produce synthesis gas (“syngas”), cooled and cleaned the syngas, and supplied the syngas to a patented gas fermentation bioreactor to produce an ethanol broth. The broth was subsequently distilled to produce commercial grade ethanol.

The feedstock to be supplied comes from the more than 1.6 million tons of waste orchard wood and nutshells that are generated each year from approximately 1 million acres of almond, walnut, and pistachio orchards in the Central Valley. Aemetis’ price of the feedstock is approximately $20 per ton delivered for the first ten years.

As an aside, San Joaquin Air Quality Management held a conference last Fall declaring a “Air Pollution Crisis caused by Waste Orchard Wood Burning”.

Future development

Aemetis plans to construct multiple phases of cellulosic ethanol production and add more than 40 million gallons per year of cellulosic ethanol capacity at the Riverbank, California site.

Aemetis has exclusive California rights to the LanzaTech technology for biomass and global rights to the InEnTec gasifier for any use with LanzaTech fermentation.

The Aemetis backstory

Aemetis owns and operates a 60 million gallon per year ethanol production facility in California’s Central Valley, near Modesto.  Aemetis also owns and operates a 50 million gallon per year renewable chemical and advanced fuel production facility on the East Coast of India producing high quality distilled biodiesel and refined glycerin for customers in India, the US and Europe.

Jim Lane is editor and publisher  of Biofuels Digest where this article was originally published. Biofuels Digest is the most widely read  Biofuels daily read by 14,000+ organizations. Subscribe here.

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