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Coskata Forms Strategic Alliance with ICM for Design and Construction of Syngas Fermentation Ethanol Plant

Coskata Inc., the second-generation ethanol startup with which GM announced a partnership and investment at the Detroit Auto Show (earlier post), has entered a strategic alliance with ICM, Inc. to design and construct a commercial ethanol plant using Coskata’s syngas fermentation technology.

ICM is North America’s leading ethanol plant design, engineering and support firm, and is responsible for approximately 50% of North American ethanol production from plants constructed by Fagen, Inc. and ICM.

The first full-commercial scale Coskata plant is expected to open in late 2010. A pilot plant is due in operation in the fourth quarter of this year. GM will use the fuel produced by that pilot plant in testing vehicles at its Milford Proving Grounds.

Coskata uses a three-step syngas-to-ethanol process:

  1. Gasification. Carbon-based feedstock is converted into syngas using well-established gasification technologies. Coskata has not yet named the gasification technology to be used in the initial plant. The syngas is then fed to a bioreactor for fermentation.

  2. Fermentation. Coskata’s proprietary microorganisms convert the resulting syngas into ethanol by consuming the carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen (H2) in the gas stream.

  3. Separation. Pervaporation technology separates and recovers the ethanol.

Coskata’s process is based on research and technology developed by the Oklahoma State University (OSU) Biofuels Team and licensed exclusively to Coskata. The licensing agreement between OSU and Coskata includes the microorganisms used in syngas fermentation, with a companion research agreement for any aspects of the syngas fermentation technology that would aid them in production. Since providing the initial three strains of microorganisms in 2006, Coskata-funded research with the OSU Biofuels Team has provided two additional microorganisms for the company.

Coskata has already picked its leading strain for the first plant, and is continuing primarily to advance that strain for commercialization, according to Wes Bolsen, Chief Marketing Office and Vice President of Business Development for Coskata. The company has seen 50x as much ethanol expression in this particular strain. The newer strains will be for additional plants and products.

According to Coskata, the proprietary microorganisms do what syngas conversion from chemical catalysis cannot do, which is make a pure stream of ethanol at the lowest cost target in the industry. Coskata projects that it will be able to produce ethanol for less than $1.00 per gallon almost anywhere in the world from a wide variety of feedstocks.

Coskata’s process uses less than a gallon of water to make a gallon of ethanol compared to three gallons or more for other processes. According to Argonne National Laboratory, which analyzed Coskata’s process, for every unit of energy used, it generates up to 7.7 times that amount of energy, and it reduces CO2 emissions by up to 84% on a full well-to-wheels basis compared with gasoline.

In addition to ICM’s own research and development efforts, ICM evaluated other potential cellulosic ethanol technologies to identify commercially viable processes. Coskata’s thermal biomass conversion process offers promising technology.

—Dave Vander Griend, president and CEO of ICM


Mark A

What is the "carbon-based feedstock" going to be?? Lets hope not corn!!!!!


Mark, don’t worry. Corn and other human food are not economic as a feedstock for this process because there are many and far less expensive alternatives, such as, wood, switchgrass, many kinds of garbage, even old tires and dirty coal. I hope it is not going to be coal. Time will tell but the potential for this technology sounds as promising as the yet to be seen EESTOR capacitor.

Mark A

I like your answer Henrik. But where is your proof that they will not use our food, in this process. And if this is indeed the case, what with all the new ethanol plants currently being built using corn, why cant this process be shared all around, instead of using up our food supply? Isnt that what our tax dollars for funding R & D research supposed to get us?

I am skeptical, because I see ethanol as a poor solution to our energy problems.


This would appear to be a natural for collaboration with Ze-Gen... if it works.

Paul F. Dietz

But where is your proof that they will not use our food, in this process.

Using food would increase tbeir costs while providing no benefit to the process. Why do you imagine they would do something so economically self-defeating? I mean, it would be about as sensible as smelting iron using corn as the reducing agent instead of (coked) coal.

The bigger worry you should have (if you are into worrying) is that the process would migrate to the cheapest feedstock, coal.


50-60% of US grown corn goes to feed livestock - not exactly "our food." Want to lower GHGs, preserve more corn to eat, cut down your cholesterol, improve human health generally? Eat less meat. That's green.


This would be an ideal situation for Startech in that it can accept many more feedstocks than Ze-Gen. As of right now plasma can handle the 245 Million tons per year of Municipal Solid Waste and convert it into a clean syngas better than other gasification technologies.


Startech needs to update their web site. It's still in stardate 2001.


Before declaring success I think we should know more about this process. The flow chart on the earlier article shows a bioreactor but omits details. Are the micro-organisms recycled or do they need to be continuously replenished? Will contaminants (eg PVC) in gasified garbage kill the process? The syngas is presumably repeat bubbled through the mash until it is consumed. No heat source is shown for the pervaporation unit. If indeed the process is effective the fact remains that ethanol is an unsatisfactory fuel.


There are companies that turn syngas into ethanol using catalysts. They do not need any organisms in the process. Here is one of several processes.

It seems like with a consistent feedstock like ground corn stover, you could make a lot of ethanol at a good price.



Ethanol is a reasonable fuel, but if you want better modifying these fermenter to produce butanol or biogas should not be beyond the range of biotech.

My only problem with this technique is that it losses at least 35% of the biomass as CO2. It might be able the use wider feedstocks but it might still be less efficient then cellulose to ethanol fermentation.


From what I can understand about Coskata’s process using their proprietary microorganism is both more efficient and more important less costly than known catalyst technology. Coskata claim they will be able to produce ethanol for $1 per gallon. Are there anyone with new catalyst technology who claim they can do it for $1 per gallon? I don’t think so. I would like to here if there is.

You worry what will happen to existing corn ethanol facilities if the Coskata process can work as they claim. The answer is simple. Existing corn ethanol facilities will either be closed because they can no longer compete or more likely they will be converted to use the Coskata process or another and equally economical process. The most economic production process will always spread at the expense of the less economic processes and corn ethanol is therefore only a temporary solution to make ethanol in a very immature industry. Ethanol production may be a very large industry in the future because the price of oil is going up and ethanol is an emerging alternative where the price appears to be going down rather than up exactly because of steady progress in process technology.


This article claims that Syntec has:

"The variable cost per gallon of alcohol on current yield is USD0.48 per gallon.."


I do not know what their fixed cost is, so I can not compare it with the $1 per gallon figure.


The "big deal" about Coskata that I am reading here and other places, is that they are claiming to be able to make ethanol from a multitude of other sources instead of corn, i.e. municipal waste, garbage, old tires, wood chips, etc. I encourage you all to check out there website at

I think since GM made the announcement of investing a small amount in Coskata, and backing their claims, Coskata is being taken A LOT more seriously. I'm hoping this works out.


Gasification can take different feed stocks, but it seems to work best when there is a consistent input that the process is set up for.

This is one of the problems (among many) with corn distillation. The price of corn has gone up and the profit margins for the ethanol plants has come down.

If I can use corn stalks one year and rice straw the next, I am not tied to the price rises. Since there is not a food market, but a feed market for corn stalks, the price pressures may not be the same.

I do not have a problem with their process. Gasifying and then using organisms may be the way to go. It just seems like using catalysts and making whatever you want is more flexible.


And we'll believe them when they're selling at that price.

Cellulose is very hard to crack down to fermentable sugars.

Traditionally, acid was needed to get a fermentable product from cellulose (TVA ran a pilot plant back in the 1970s)

Please pardon those of us who are skeptical about claims before production facilities are operating.

>Coskata claim they will be able to produce ethanol for $1 per gallon.


They are using organisms on syngas, so they do not have to use enzymes nor acids. The catalyst techniques end up with ethanol and methanol. One said that they put the methanol back into the cycle to make more ethanol. If ethanol sells for more than methanol, this would make sense.

Jay Dee

Taxpayers, consumers, and investors have been jerked around a lot lately by Big Oil and corn ethanol conglomerates, so maybe consider the following cynicism:

The recent Coskata hype isn't actually about producing cheap, sustainable ethanol. The hype basically is feel-good PR that delivers gains for its purveyors: GM desperately wants to eliminate fuel-economy standards (hoping to sell ever more profitable trucks and SUVs to serve their Big Oil investors), and "buck-a-gallon ethanol" should fool us just like their fuel-cell cars did. ICM and Vinod Khosla have huge investments in now-unprofitable corn ethanol plants, and want to hype ethanol to get even more corn ethanol subsidies and sell those corn ethanol plants for high profits.

So taxpayers, consumers, and investors should obviously be thinking "Fool me once - shame on you; fool me twice - shame on me !!!"

If Coskata actually has a cheap, sustainable ethanol process, I think that a well-run Coskata would be fairly rigorous in its testing (and in secret). Then I'd expect them to design a small standard, easily-replicated processing plant (again largely in secret). These sorts of developments are unrelated to hype which is all that Coskata has profitably produced for its owners to date.

Besides "buck-a-gallon ethanol", Coskata claims to have a plan for a production plant in 2010. I'm pretty sure though that if the Chinese get high-yield bacteria like Coskata claims to have, and if the Chinese think that such ethanol could be made cheaper than the wholesale price of gasoline, that we'd see Chinese producing such ethanol well before 2010. Maybe we're lucky the Chinese haven't been sucked in by this ethanol hype yet because they seem to be the most diligent about actually getting electric cars on the road.

And regarding Vinod Khosla, Asian Indians I know in the US have expressed disgust about turning food into fuel for SUVs. And yet that is what Khosla has been doing. Shame on Khosla if he's hyping this vaporware just to get more money turning food into fuel.


This is not food, unless you eat corn stalks, it is turning cellulose biomass into fuel.

I read that we have over 300 million tons of agricultural biomass that just get thrown away each year. At 100 gallons per ton, that would be over 30 billion gallons of ethanol to replace some of the 140 billion gallons of gasoline, or more than 20%.

That would mean 2-3 million barrels per day less imported oil. This is serious business and should be given the importance that it deserves.

Jay Dee

Give me a break. GM is $300 Billion in debt, with a market value less than $15 Billion. The major GM investor funds are major Big Oil investors (as well as corn ethanol investors) that steer GM as a loss leader to increase Big Oil's profits: In particular, GM is allowed to survive to make Hummers and Escalades for their Big Oil investors.

In turn, Coskata is already serving as a major PR showpiece for its investors GM and big corn ethanol producers like Khosla and ICM, to prop up American gas and corn-ethanol guzzling.

So Coskata looks like hype that GM, Khosla, and ICM can huff-and-puff about for many years to come, to avoid legislated fuel-economy standards and lower corn ethanol subsidies.

The best way I see to avoid this scam is to involve some powerful independent organizations with sufficiently high abilities and motivation to stand up to Big Oil. And the strongest of such organizations may ironically be among our competitors/adversaries in China. For example, if only a test-tube of this high yielding bacteria was made available to qualified Chinese personnel (through either theft, independent development, or highly unlikely licensing), then I'd bet in 6 months that Chinese companies would either start producing massive commercial quantities of this sort of cheap sustainable ethanol, or they'd prove it's entirely impractical and uneconomic.


I would like to see a reference for those GM debt figures. It would depend on the assets that GM hold, which are substantial.

Albengoa and other cellulose ethanol companies are not in the grips of "big oil" as far as I know. They ARE out to make a buck and that is just fine with me.


Easy to read the trolls now. Their email addresses are dead.

Jay Dee


You are wrong about doubting that GM has $300 Billion in debts:

More seriously, you would be wrong to suggest that I didn't take Coskata's hype seriously...Consider this article "Why the price of 'peak oil' is famine":


I got the little red book... If I can only locate my old Mao jacket!


Isn't the Arrgone National Lab a substantial enough third party to assess this process? Even if you doubt them, the University, GM, AND Coskata, they did say that they were building a trial production facility by the end of THIS year. The 2010 date is for fully ramped up facilities. I guess I have an easier time believing that some good old hard work in research and efforts to make a product better and cheaper than the other guy just MIGHT HAVE HAPPENED.

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