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BRI Energy Seeking to Build Two Gasification-Fermentation Ethanol Plants

BRI Process schematic. Click to enlarge.

BRI Energy, a company that ferments gasified waste, biomass or hydrocarbons such as coal into ethanol (earlier post) announced tentative plans to build one or two gasification-fermentation facilities in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

BRI hopes for federal loan guarantees for part of the funding of both projects: one to convert western coal to ethanol, and the other to convert burnable municipal waste (paper, plastic, garbage, leather) to ethanol.

The coal gasification facility would cost $25 million, and the company is seeking a $20-million federal loan guarantee. The municipal waste facility would require $62.5 in private investment and a $250-million federal loan guarantee.

The BRI process utilizes a culture of anaerobic acetogenic bacteria (Clostridium ljungdahlii) that ingests syngas and emits ethanol at a yield of some 75 gallons or more per dry ton of biomass. From used tires or hydrocarbons it can yield approximately 150 gallons or more per ton.

The first stage of the process uses established gasification or plasma arc technologies to generate a carbon monoxide-rich syngas. During the gasification process, the temperature and access to outside air is controlled and restricted in two sequential chambers. Because of this, the air emissions are minimal.

The carbon monoxide gas exits the gasifier at temperatures up to 2,200°F, then must be cooled to 100° before being fed to the microorganisms. This process generates an immense amount of waste heat that can be used to create high-temperature steam to drive electric turbines.

In the second stage of the process, the C. ljungdahlii bacteria ingest the carbon monoxide gas and produce ethanol, acetic acid, hydrogen and water.

There are a number of anaerobic bacteria in addition to C. ljungdahlii that can utilize the components of synthesis gas (CO, CO2, and H2) as carbon and energy sources : Clostridium thermoaceticum, Clostridium autoethanogenum, Peptostreptoccus productus, Eubacteriam limosum, Butyribacterium mehylotrophicum, and Clostridium acetobutylicum.

The basic chemistry of the conversion of syngas to ethanol and acetic acid by C. ljungdahlii is as follows:

6CO + 3H2O → CH3CH2OH [Ethanol] + 4CO2

2CO2 + 6H2 → CH3CH2OH + 3H2O

4CO + 2H2O → CH3COOH [Acetic acid] + 2CO2

2CO2 + 4H2 → CH3COOH + 2H2O

The last step is to separate the ethanol from the hydrogen and water. This is accomplished through the same distillation process that is currently being used in traditional corn and sugar to ethanol plants.

BRI expects to develop modular plants the capacities of which can be expanded. The company envisions a single module combining two gasifiers, each with a capacity of approximately 125 tons of feedstock per day, and two fermenters.

BRI President William Bruce is testifying before the Senate Energy and Natural resources Committee today in a hearing on Coal Gasification.



Joe Rocker

I think coal ethanol has a higher potential to free us from foreign oil than corn ethanol. I don't know about the environmental concerns. I am more worried about my gas money going to communist dictators and Ayatollahs overseas.


Does anyone know, is there a way to turn hydrogen into ethanol?

What I am wondering is if it would be possible to create ethanol from electricity derived from solar panels or windmills. I know you can create hydrogen from electricity and water, but can you then turn that hydrogen into ethanol? I am curious if you can do it either organically with bacteria or inorganically. Any information would be helpful. Thanks.


You can't turn hydrogen into ethanol. Ethanol is a two-carbon alcohol, so unless you plan to use fusion energy, you can't get it from just hydrogen. :)

An Engineer

Why would you convert syngas into ethanol? Does it qualify you for a generous farm subsidy?

Converting syngas to typical petrochemicals (including gasoline and diesel) has been done for more than 50 years in South Africa. It's old hat and it works.

Ethanol on the other hand, cannot be pumped (like gasoline) due to corrosion issues, tied to ethanol's hygroscopic nature. It also increases vapor pressure when blended with gasoline, i.e. increases evaporative loss and emissions. It also needs a lot of energy to separate ethanol from water in the first place.

In short, ethanol is not the siver bullet the MSM and some politicians are meking it out to be...


I'm with Joe Rocker. We should be going full speed on energy self sufficency and fine tune the sustainability and environmental issues are we go. From what I read on this site, the creative talents are fired up and the proposals are going to address all three area.

But we are at the mercy of people who are not our best friends and it is a very very uncomfortable feeling.

An Engineer

BTW Cervus,
Look at the second chemical reaction listed above: you can apparently react hydrogen with CO2 to get ethanol. No need for fusion.


Engineer: I was being facetious, since the poster above apparently thought you could use just hydrogen.

gerald earl

I have been waiting for more news on bri.From their previous appearance on gcc I got the impression that this process could have wide application.
There is no competition between coal,corn,trash etc. because this process can use all of these feedstocks.Startech process may be better for hazardous waste processing{although the piece mentions plasma arc tech dont think previous story did}.This BRI process produces electricity,ethenol,acetic acid,hydrogen and water.Emisions are "mimimal" I would hazard to guess this to be far superior to oil refining.I couldnt log on to testifying link,it was overloaded,hopefully the fact that they are in the halls of congress means this tech can get wide distribution quickly.If the promised reults are true I am behind the fed guaruntees.Engineers of gcc what do you think?Is my giddiness warranted or has this rube just been sold the perpetual motion machine?


A carbon tax could tilt the preferred feedstock to bio rather than fossil carbon, though it could be an administrative nightmare. Oil depletion looks like it will require millions of barrels per day in replacements, not the thousands talked about with these unconventional fossil fuels. Nonetheless I think Mother Nature is giving us a last chance to get emissions down so I think we should get it right.

gerald earl

The need to pump the ethanol may be lessened by the fact that these could be installed at every dump in America.The wide variety of feedstcks meens it could produce fuel at sites all over.Forestry byproducts,old tires,cow dung,corn stalks etc etc.I think the potential for solutions may far outweigh the limitations.As a part of a distributed energy production base it would be far less susceptible to terrorism than the refineries today are.Our domestic economy would benefit from the production instead of oil powers that fund the terrorists.Our sons and daughters would not have to defend overseas energy supplies if this and other domestic distributed sources are developed.


As far as GHG emissions go, ethanol from coal looks like a loser to me. If you can really get diesel or gasoline from biomass, that looks like a big winner to me.

Jesse Jenkins

Any word on how much electricity is co-produced in BRI's process? I assume that with a gasification-style cellulosic ethanol plant, a significant quantity of electricity can be co-produced with the ethanol, greatly improving the environmental impact and profitability of these plants.

This study from Argonne National Labs discusses a similar (theoretical) design for a biomass gasification refinery and concludes that a yield of 105 gals of ethanol and 604 kWh of electricity per dry ton of switchgrass is feasible. That's not too shabby, to say the least. I'm excited to see one of these plants being built as it could signal the start of a new phase of very efficient cellulosic ethanol plant construction.

Given the 1.3 billion dry ton annual supply of biomass assumed to be technically recoverable by the USDOE and USDA, that amounts to enough biomass to produce almost 136 billion gallons of ethanol (~10.4 quadrillion Btus or 65% of 2004 light duty vehicle energy use [see EIA AOE2006]) PLUS 785.6 billion kWhs of electricity (~2.7 quadrillion Btus or 20% of total US electricity generation in 2004) using a plant like the one described by Argonne. Needless to say, that's quite a significant impact on our domestic energy security and global climate change concerns.

Of course, not all of that 1.3 billion dry tons would be economically recoverable in the near future (the figures are for mid-20th century) and by the time they are, demand will have surely grown (for both electricity and vehicle fuel), but with gasification biorefineries like these, cellulosic biomass could become a major source of electricity and transportation fuel.


Is there any reason that ethanol production by this fermentor is better than F-T synthesis of higher quality hydrocarbon fuels? I am under the impression that the big obstacle to F-T is the energy intensity of the gasification. Once you've got syn gas, it seems, as others have suggested, that there are better things to make than ethanol.

allen zheng

An enormous and obvious glaring inefficiency in this process. It is also easy to remedy. The ethanol distillation has no (on this diagram) post-distillation heat recovery for various internal and external uses (such as preheating before distillation, or the production of steam/hot water for various electrical and chemical production).

tom deplume

The BRI system could use the steam exhaust from the turbine driven generator for distillation heat.
Why ethanol? It has much lower emission characteristics than gasoline or diesel and can be used by both spark and compression ignition engines with little modification.

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