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BlueFire Files for Construction Permits for California’s First Cellulosic Waste to Ethanol Plant; Demo Facility for Bio-Butanol

Simplified flow diagram for the Arkenol process used by BlueFire Ethanol. Click to enlarge.

BlueFire Ethanol Fuels, Inc. filed for its permits with Los Angeles County in June for California’s first cellulose to ethanol production facility. BlueFire Ethanol will receive around $40 million in funding from the US Department of Energy and the California Energy Commission (earlier post, earlier post) for this lignocellulosic biorefinery project.

The production facility will be located adjacent to the Lancaster landfill and will use green and wood waste streams for feedstock. Initial production will be approximately 3.1 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol per year. The plant will also serve as a future demonstration facility for BlueFire’s bio-butanol production process.

To reduce the environmental footprint, the facility will use recycled water and will generate roughly 70% of its total energy needs from lignin, a process co-product. This plant will serve as the model for future system modules for use in other facilities planned for construction.

BlueFire estimates that more than 70 billions gallons of fuel grade ethanol can be produced from the 1 billion tons of recoverable waste in the US. For Southern California, the potential exists to convert these waste streams into several hundred million gallons of ethanol fuel per year.

BlueFire Ethanol was established to use the Arkenol process for the conversion of cellulosic waste material to ethanol. The Arkenol process uses concentrated acid hydrolysis to process cellulosic biomass into simple sugars suitable for fermenting into ethanol. Arkenol improved upon the well-known acid hydrolysis process in a number of critical areas:

  • Efficient acid recovery and reconcentration;

  • High sugar concentration at high purity;

  • The ability to ferment C6 and C5 sugars efficiently with conventional microbes;

  • The ability to handle silica in biomass feedstocks; and,

  • The creation of usable and marketable by-products.

Incoming biomass feedstocks are pre-treated (cleaned and ground to a reduced particle size), and then dried to a moisture content consistent with the acid concentration requirements for decrystallization (separation of the cellulose and hemicellulose from the lignin). The biomass is then hydrolyzed (degrading the chemical bonds of the cellulose) to produce hexose and pentose sugars at the high concentrations necessary for commercial fermentation. Insoluble materials, principally the lignin portion of the biomass input, are separated from the hydrolyzate by filtering and pressing and further processed into fuel or other beneficial uses.

The remaining acid-sugar solution is separated into its acid and sugar components by means of an Arkenol-developed technology that uses commercially available ion exchange resins to separate the components without diluting the sugar. The separated sulfuric acid is recirculated and reconcentrated to the level required by the decrystallization and hydrolysis steps.

The small quantity of acid left in the sugar solution is neutralized with lime to make hydrated gypsum, CaSO4 · 2H2O, an insoluble precipitate which is readily separated from the sugar solution and which also has beneficial use as an agricultural soil conditioner. At this point the process has produced a clean stream of mixed sugars (both C6 and C5) for fermentation.

A yeast cultured to ferment the mixed sugar stream is mixed with nutrients and added to the sugar solution where it converts both the C6 and C5 sugars to fermentation beer (an ethanol, yeast and water mixture) and carbon dioxide. The yeast culture is separated from the fermentation beer by a centrifuge and returned to the fermentation tanks for reuse.

Ethanol is separated from the beer by conventional distillation technology, dehydrated to 200 proof with conventional molecular sieve technology, and denatured with unleaded gasoline to produce the final fuel-grade ethanol product.

The still bottoms, containing principally water and unfermented pentose sugar, is returned to the process for economic water use and for further conversion of the pentose sugars.

With the appropriate organisms, the process could be adapted for the production of bio-butanol. BlueFire’s plan calls for the deployment of bio-butanol production sometime after 2009.

BlueFire can use post-sorted municipal solid waste (MSW), rice and wheat straws, wood waste and other agricultural residues. BlueFire plans to locate their cellulose conversion facilities on landfills throughout North America, initially focusing on the California fuel market.




Can't wait. Right now there's little or no ethanol in California. When this becomes available, I'm switching immediately. (If I don't get an electric car first.) Butanol will be even better.

Go BlueFire.


Yeah, seems to make sense. It would probably make more sense if butanol and ethanol plants were integrated with cogeneration systems.


If the CO2 produced in the process would be captured and geologically stored (which could be rather easy since it comes out of the process in a concentrated form), there could even be a net sequestration of atmospheric CO2. Carbon credits may help as an incentive.


Lots of old oil wells in California to sequester CO2 in.

Stan Peterson

This looks to be a nice Carbon DE-sequestration process. It liberates lots hydrocarbons to become future atmospheric CO2. I would be alarmed, if I really thought controlling CO2 was an object worth doing.

Once again charlatans and political ideology triumphs over Science and Technology. A CO2 molecule generated by burning this "bio" ethanol; or alternatively a coal-to-liquid conversion process is indistinguishable. Except to the green theologians arguing about the "greenness" of a specific (indistinguishable!) CO2 molecule.

To paraphrase Mr. Forrest Gump: "Nonsense is as Nonsense does! and "Boodling is its OWN reward" .

At the moment, CO2 sequestration is only done in oil wells because increased oil recovery is the only financial incentive. In addition, oil wells are (for now) the only places where pure CO2 can easily be produced. This does not mean you need an oil well to sequester CO2. It can be injected in many types of geological layers where with time it reacts with Mg and Ca to form carbonates. since in the process at least one molecule of CO2 (=1 C atom) is produced for each molecule of ethanol (=two C atoms), this means the 70 billion gallons of produced ethanol would also remove an equivalent af about 35 billion gallons of gasoline out of the air.



Every CO2 molecule from this process is a molecule that would have been liberated into the air very soon anyway, since it is from agricultural wast which would otherwise have been burned, composted or digested by micro-organisms. In addition, every carbon atom used is an atom which has been taken out of the air by the growing plants in the last year.
So, there is a very big difference between coal-to-liquid ethanol and this type of ethanol. As I stated before, there could even be a net sequestration if a sequestration step would be added for the CO2 produced in the process.

Roger Arnold

So what's new about this process that will now make it economical? Acid hydrolysis has been around for a long time, and has never commercially feasible.

Is it the ion exchange process that separates most of the acid from the sugars without diluting the sugars? That, admittedly, sounds pretty cool.


Nearly 30 years ago TVA built a pilot-scale plant to make ethanol from wood chips, using sulfuric acid.

The cost of the acid alone (even with recycling) led them to conclude it would not be economically feasible.

I predict this company (along with all other cellulosic ethanol companies) will be asking for MORE subsidies than corn-based ethanol producers.


Its probably worth pointing out that the output of this plant is only equal to 20,000 litres of gasoline per day.

Thats just one semi-trailer load of gasoline.

So it ain't very big.


Paul Dietz

The cost of the acid alone (even with recycling) led them to conclude it would not be economically feasible.

I predict this company (along with all other cellulosic ethanol companies) will be asking for MORE subsidies than corn-based ethanol producers.

Bill: did you bother to read about their process? One of their significant advances is a technique to recover and reuse most of the acid. IIRC, they recycle 97% of it on each pass.

Also, if gasification of coal becomes widespread, then the market for sulfur will become glutted, and sulfuric acid will become even cheaper.

At the moment, CO2 sequestration is only done in oil wells because increased oil recovery is the only financial incentive.

Actually, there is a large CO2 sequestration project in the North Sea (Sleipner) that injects CO2 separated from natural gas back into an aquifer merely for storage, not for enhanced recovery.


Sure they do - on paper.

Whether they can get that figure in an _operating_ plant is another story, as TVA found out.

They also claim to be able to use C5 sugars, but I've not seen commercially available yeasts (just papers and patents)

>IIRC, they recycle 97% of it on each pass.

Paul Dietz

Sure they do - on paper.

Actually, they used wood chips in the demonstration, not paper. :)

The 97% recovery rate was demonstrated at the Izumi pilot plant in Japan, which went into operation several years ago.

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