In July of 2013, the Indian River Bioenergy Centre near Vero Beach, Florida, became the first commercial-scale biorefinery in the nation to begin producing cellulosic ethanol from waste. INEOS Bio and New Planet Energy jointly own the $130-million facility, which uses a hybrid thermochemical-fermentation process to continuously convert vegetative and wood waste into fuel, heat, and power. The conversion process, from the time the biomass enters the gasifier to the production of ethanol—takes less than ten minutes.

Researchers developed and refined this innovative conversion technology over more than two decades. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) first recognized the potential of the technology with a research grant to the University of Arkansas in 1993. DOE invested nearly $5 million more in the technology at critical points during its development from bench to pilot and demonstration scales. In 2009, DOE contributed $50 million in cost-shared funding to assist with the design, construction, commissioning, and start-up of this pioneer facility.

The ability to divert waste materials from communities by converting them into competitively priced renewable fuel and power offers an excellent value proposition. It helps solve waste disposal issues, contributes to the supply of affordable and renewable fuel and energy, creates attractive jobs, and provides a sustainable source of value for the community.”

Dr. Peter Williams, Chairman,
INEOS New Planet BioEnergy

By diverting vegetative waste from the local landfill and minimizing waste throughout the three-stage conversion process, the biorefinery generates a range of economic and environmental benefits that underpin a sustainable business model. The gasification step converts nearly all of the input biomass (including lignin) into a synthesis gas containing hydrogen and carbon monoxide (syngas). This mixture must be cleaned and cooled before it enters the fermentation vessel, so the waste heat is used both to dry incoming biomass and generate the electricity required to run the plant; excess power is uploaded to the grid. The low-temperature, low-pressure fermentation process relies on a patented microorganism that feeds on the carbon monoxide in the syngas and outputs ethanol and water. The water is recycled, and the ethanol product is distilled to yield anhydrous ethanol.

Ethanol produced at the plant will be sold in the immediate region. The facility also provides ethanol for use in E-85 fuel to VP Racing Fuels as part of the Green Racing initiative, in which DOE is a partner. On a lifecycle basis, racecars using the E-85 emit 65% fewer greenhouse gases than they would using oil-based fuel.

The graphic summarizes key aspects and benefits of this technology as well as DOE’s role in helping it to enter commercial markets. [Note: DOE funding values are rounded.]