The world”s first commercial cellulosic ethanol plant is scheduled to open this fall in northern Spain, according to a report by Dow Jones Newswires. The plant, which is being built by Ontario-based SunOpta BioProcess Group (formerly Stake Technology, www.sunopta.com), is based in Salamanca, Spain, and will produce ethanol from wheat straw via a cellulosic process, which is being touted as a more efficient agricultural goods-to-ethanol method than more mature alternatives, such as the corn- or sugar-based ethanol processes popular in the United States and Brazil.

The facility is being supplied to Abener Energia S.A. (www.abener.com) of Seville, Spain. Abengoa is the largest ethanol producer in Europe, the second largest in the world, and operator of a research and development division in St. Louis. It is located adjacent to a cereal grain-to-ethanol plant operated by Abengoa, which is currently starting production. Dow Jones reports that manufacturing of major equipment for the cellulosic module is currently being completed and will be shipped to the site in coming weeks. The facility is expected to generate 54 million gallons of ethanol annually.

According Dow Jones’s report:

“Cellulosic ethanol production involves a highly technical three-step chemical process, which begins by extracting the cellulose from biomass — such as corn stalks, rice straw, wheat straw, switchgrass, corn fiber, soy fiber and the like — which is basically glued together with a tough compound known as lignin.

“To produce ethanol, the cellulose must first be ‘unglued’ using a pre-treatment process, such as dilute acid hydrolysis, autohydrolysis, or ammonia fiber explosion. The cellulose is then converted to sugar using special enzymes costing 500 percent to 1,000 percent more than those commonly needed to process starch. The resultant sugar is then fermented into cellulosic ethanol utilizing a genetically modified form of yeast.“

There are cost concerns involved with cellulose ethanol though, as current prices are estimated at approximately double that of ethanol produced via the less complex methods currently in use for corn- and sugar-based ethanol. However, supporters of cellulosic processes expects the price to fall to 90-95 cents per gallon as new technologies help improve the efficiency of the method.

To read the full Dow Jones report, visit www.agriculture.com/ag/futuresource/FutureSourceStoryIndex.jhtml?storyId=42200421